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Consumer Reports on Choosing a Safe Hospital


This is a project that had its genesis in tragedy.

John James was a chief toxicologist for NASA in Houston when his 19-year-old son died after two doctors made a series of medical errors. John Alexander James had an abnormal heart beat and despite being treated by a “team” of cardiologists in a central Texas hospital, his father says the treatment was “uninformed, careless and unethical.”

James founded Patient Safety America to educate the public on hospital and doctor errors. Partnering with Consumer Union’s Safe Patient Project he has compiled some guestimates on the number of people who die in hospitals due to medical errors.

His estimate – 440,000 suffer a fatal hospital error annually. The cause can be delayed care, the wrong prescription, too much of a drug, hospital infections, the wrong treatment or a failure to order tests or treatment. That amounts to more than 1,000 deaths a day in U.S. hospitals.

James says his guestimate is inexact and it does eclipse estimates from the Institute of Medicine which 15 years ago estimated that number to be about 98,000 deaths per year. The Department of Health and Human Services estimated that number at 180,000 Medicare patients alone.

Regardless of the number that is too many needless and preventable deaths due to medical and hospital errors.

Courtesy of Jacob WindhamJames and Consumers Union have created a hospital safety score sheet which includes 2,591 hospitals in 50 states and the District of Columbia. Hospitals are scored from one to 100 based on five measures of patient safety including mortality, meaning the chance the patient will die in the hospital or within 30 days of admission, readmission rates, communication about medications and discharge, infection control including hand washing and the number of scans one receives.

If you assume larger cities with a higher per capita income have the best hospitals, assume again. Damariscotta, Maine and Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota ranked very well. The SD hospital is a teaching facility which has instituted a strict hand washing protocol and policies for minimizing infection around the use of urinary catheters. Both are likely causes of hospital infections.

Back in 1999, when the Institute of Medicine issued its report, “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System” the problem of hospital-acquired infections and antibiotic-resistant bacteria were not as profound as today.

The ranking of your local hospital is available with a subscription to Consumer Reports.

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