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Extrapolation of the results of the Colorado and Utah study to the over 33.6 million admissions to hospitals in the United States in 1997, implies that at least 44,000 Americans die in hospitals each year as a result of preventable medical errors.36 Based on the results of the New York study, the number of deaths due to medical error may be as high as 98,000.37 By way of comparison, the lower estimate is greater than the number of deaths attributable to the 8th-leading cause of death.38
Some maintain these extrapolations likely underestimate the occurrence of preventable adverse events because these studies: (1) considered only those patients whose injuries resulted in a specified level of harm; (2) imposed a high threshold to determine whether an adverse event was preventable or negligent (concurrence of two reviewers); and (3) included only errors that are documented in patient records.39
Two studies that relied on both medical record abstraction and other information sources, such as provider reports, have found higher rates of adverse events occurring in hospitals. In a study of 815 consecutive patients on a general medical service of a university hospital, it was found that 36 percent had an iatrogenic illness, defined as any illness that resulted from a diagnostic procedure, from any form of therapy, or from a harmful occurrence that was not a natural consequence of the patient's disease.40 Of the 815 patients, nine percent had an iatrogenic illness that threatened life or produced considerable disability, and for another two percent, iatrogenic illness was believed to contribute to the death of the patient.
In a study of 1,047 patients admitted to two intensive care units and one surgical unit at a large teaching hospital, 480 (45.8 percent) were identified as having had an adverse event, where adverse event was defined as "situations in which an inappropriate decision was made when, at the time, an appropriate alternative could have been chosen."41 For 185 patients (17.7 percent), the adverse event was serious, producing disability or death. The likelihood of experiencing an adverse event increased about six percent for each day of hospital stay.
Some information on errors can also be gleaned from studies that focus on inpatients who died or experienced a myocardial infarction or postsurgical complication. In a study of 182 deaths in 12 hospitals from three conditions (cerebrovascular accident, pneumonia, or myocardial infarction), it was found that at least 14 percent and possibly as many as 27 percent of the deaths might have been prevented.42 A 1991 analysis of 203 incidents of cardiac arrest at a teaching hospital,43 found that 14 percent followed an iatrogenic complication and that more than half of these might have been prevented. In a study of 44,603 patients who underwent surgery between