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Study reveals the prevalence of wrong-patient errors

When we enter the hospital to undergo a procedure or receive care for a medical emergency, the last thing on our minds is that our patient identity could somehow be confused with another person. That's largely because our attention is focused on our health, and also because we assume a general level of competency, such that this type of medical error would seem inconceivable.

According to a recently released study from the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing patient safety, patient identification errors at medical centers are actually occurring with alarming regularity, sometimes with deadly results.

As part of the study, ECRI researchers examined 7,613 "wrong-patient error" cases that occurred at 181 medical centers across the nation from January 2013 to July 2015. 

After examining these cases, which the researchers indicated likely represent only a small percentage of the total number, it was found that 91 percent of the patient mistakes were uncovered prior to patients suffering any harm. However, two were fatal and several other resulted in serious patient harm, including an infant who was given breast milk from the wrong mother and contracted hepatitis as a result.

Breaking the numbers downs further, the researchers discovered more about when these types of errors occur:

  • Over 33 percent involved diagnostic tests (lab work, x-rays, etc.)
  • 22 percent involved procedures and treatments
  • 13 percent involved patient registration

As far as rectifying the problem, the ECRI researchers recommended that medical centers consider implementing the following steps:

  • Introducing both standardized protocols for verifying patient identities and a culture whereby talking about wrong-patient errors in order to learn is acceptable
  • Implementing uniform standards for how patient names are displayed in electronic health records and including pictures
  • Changing culture such that medical professionals no longer refer to patients by bed numbers or rooms, and ask them to state their name
  • Extending surgical "time-outs" to all invasive procedures
  • Expanding bar code verification systems to cover procedures, x-rays, lab tests, etc.

Here's hoping medical centers implement these suggestions and that wrong-patient error cases become a distant memory in the healthcare setting.

If you've been seriously injured or lost a loved one due to what you believe was medical malpractice, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional to learn more about your options.

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