Betsy Lehman, a former Boston Globe health columnist, died as a result of a massive chemotherapy overdose. (Courtesy of the Distel-Lehman family)
By Richard Knox
Two decades after a Boston Globe reporter died from a preventable medical error in one of the nation’s top hospitals, hundreds of thousands of patients in Massachusetts are still suffering as a result of medical mistakes.
A new survey finds that one in every four Massachusetts adults reports a mistake in their own medical care or that of someone close to them over the past five years — a rate that translates to more than a million people. Half of them say they or someone close to them suffered serious harm as a result.
The numbers come from a study commissioned by the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction. It’s a state agency named for the Globe health columnist who died as a result of a massive chemotherapy overdose 20 years ago Wednesday.
The Lehman Center launched a renewed effort to reduce medical errors at an event Tuesday at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. The center, a state agency, was founded in 2004 but closed its doors in 2009 for lack of funding.
But now the center is up and running again, with $900,000 in annual state funding derived from a tax on medical institutions and health insurers.
The arresting new numbers on the impact of medical mishaps come from a Harvard School of Public Health poll, one of several studies commissioned by the Lehman Center and released Tuesday.
“If you translate our poll findings into absolute lives and numbers, approximately 1.2 million people in the commonwealth either experienced a medical error or had someone close to them experience a medical error over the last five years,” says Robert Blendon, who conducted the survey.
Prevention Efforts Fall Short
Blendon says the results suggest about 600,000 people suffer “serious health consequences” as a result of medical errors. Half the respondents told the Harvard researches the errors involved misdiagnosis, while many also report they got the wrong operation, drug, dosage, test or treatment. Other frequent errors involve infections that occurred as the result of patient care, and wrong or unclear instructions about followup care.
It’s strong evidence, experts in patient safety say, that the national movement to prevent medical errors has fallen far short of its goals.
At the same time, federal health officials on Tuesday released new data that suggest the national rate of medical errors has begun to decline. The report, by the Department of Health and Human Services, says the declining rate means that 50,000 fewer Americans died because of medical errors between 2010 and 2013 than otherwise would have.
‘It Could Happen To Anyone’
Lehman’s fatal overdose, detailed in the Globe by this reporter, helped launch a national movement to prevent medical mistakes. It’s cited in the very first sentence of a landmark 1999 report on medical errors by the National Institute of Medicine.
“When Betsy died it came as a great shock to everyone that something like that could happen,” says Barbara Fain, executive director of the Lehman Center. “One of the lessons is that if this could happen to Betsy, it could happen to anyone.” Continue reading