What is the Economic Impact of Preventable Medical Errors?

Public data shows that doctors and other medical staff are some of the most trusted professionals in the nation. But these individuals are still human and can make preventable medical errors. This preventable harm imposed on patients has an enormous economic impact typically measured in the billions of dollars. It usually gets shouldered by either health insurance companies or the injured patients themselves.

What is Preventable Harm?

Preventable medical harm is often referred to as adverse events or medical mistakes. This preventable harm can be described as an unintended injury arising from or contributed to by medical care. To be considered a medical error, the injury must:

  • require additional treatment
  • require hospitalization
  • require monitoring
  • cause the victim’s death

The most frequent types of medical mistakes include:

  • medication errors
  • surgical mistakes
  • infections caught at the hospital
  • in-hospital injury
  • deep vein thrombosis
  • misdiagnosis
  • wrong site surgery

While many are fatally injured by these types medical errors, the more common outcome is serious, severe and long-lasting harm for the patient.

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The Healthcare Financial Management Association points out statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on this data, medical errors are the third leading cause of death, topped only by heart disease and cancer. As the association notes, no one really knows the exact toll of medical errors because many of these instances go unrecorded.

Instances of recorded adverse events result in about 210,000 to 400,000 deaths annually, according to research conducted by Costs of Care. The group measures the economic impact of these deaths and injuries at around $19.5 billion annually in the United States. Most of these expenses are directly associated with the increase in medical expenses, but the loss of worker productivity is also included in the figure. The group suggests that including indirect economic costs associated with these preventable medical errors would skyrocket the figure to a number closer to $1 trillion every year.

Who Pays For Medical Errors?

The economic impact of these adverse events is tremendous, and hospitals usually do not bear the burden. Expert researchers from Costs of Care determined that about 78 percent of the medical costs associated with preventable harm are externalized through malpractice claims or medical billing. Malpractice insurance costs an average of around $123 per patient seen at each hospital. The remaining costs are typically paid by the patients themselves.

Indirect costs like lost productivity and disability payments are typically shouldered by the United States economy. Some argue that forcing hospitals to pay a greater share of the costs of preventable harm would lead to better medical practices across the country. Others argue that such measures could result in a mass exodus from the medical profession.

It’s unclear who should be required to pay for adverse events. However, it is obvious that the societal and economic impacts of preventable harm are at an unacceptably high level.

Preventable medical errors indirectly cost the United States around a trillion dollars each year, and the price of such medical procedures are only likely to increase in the future.