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October 4, 2023
David Burda
Outcomes Policy System Dynamics

Let’s Stop Blaming the Pandemic for Adverse Patient Events

I’m not quite sure how the pandemic caused surgeons and surgical teams to perform more wrong-site surgeries and leave more foreign objects in patients last year, but here we are. Maybe it’s the burnout.

Two states that have above-average healthcare systems, by most accounts, last month released below-average scores for patient safety in 2022. The states are Maryland and Minnesota. What chance do the rest of us have if hospitals and doctors in Maryland and Minnesota are screwing up?

The Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Health Care Quality released a 23-page report that said the number of adverse patient events at hospitals rose 52% to 832 in 2022 compared with 2021. Of those 832 incidents, 769, or more than 92%, were what the state calls “Level 1” events. A Level 1 incident is an adverse patient event that “results in death or serious disability.”

Pressure ulcers/wounds, patient falls, surgical events and delays in treatment represented 80% of all events in 2022. One of the biggest jumps, percentage-wise, was in surgical events, which rose to 64% last year from 31% in 2021:

  • 59% of the surgical events last year happened when a foreign object was left in a patient’s body.
  • 25% were wrong-site surgeries.
  • 16% were patient deaths.

“There was a significant increase in reported events in FY22 driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has posed additional complexities and challenges to healthcare through adverse events,” the Maryland report said.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Health released a 13-page report that said the number of adverse health events at hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers rose nearly 13% last year to 572 compared with 2021. Last year’s number is a nearly 50% increase from the 383 adverse health events reported in 2020. Twenty-one patients died from adverse health events last year, up from 14 in 2021 and the most since 2006, when 24 patients died from medical mistakes.

Similar to Maryland, pressure ulcers/wounds were the most common adverse health event in Minnesota last year followed by patient falls, biological specimen mistakes, retained objects and wrong-site surgery.

“The increase in events during 2021 was attributed primarily to new challenges and increased care associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those same challenges continued in healthcare in 2022,” the Minnesota report said.

Yes, the pandemic. It made all of us loopy and mistake-prone if not sick, seriously injured or dead. But I’m not a surgeon, nurse or clinician who opens up patients’ bodies for a living. Some things just can’t happen. And, if I’m not mistaken, the pandemic hit the U.S. in January 2020. The data in the two reports are from 2022. It’s time to snap out of it!

At some point soon, we have to stop blaming the pandemic for an increase in patient safety lapses at hospitals. And we have to stop paying for adverse patient events. If hospitals and doctors understand anything, it’s money. That will get their attention.

Thanks for reading.

About the Author

David Burda

David Burda began covering healthcare in 1983 and hasn’t stopped since. Dave writes this monthly column “Burda on Healthcare,” contributes weekly blog posts, manages our weekly newsletter 4sight Friday, and hosts our weekly Roundup podcast. Dave believes that healthcare is a business like any other business, and customers — patients — are king. If you do what’s right for patients, good business results will follow.

Dave’s personnel experiences with the healthcare system both as a patient and family caregiver have shaped his point of view. It’s also been shaped by covering the industry for 40 years as a reporter and editor. He worked at Modern Healthcare for 25 years, the last 11 as editor.

Prior to Modern Healthcare, he did stints at the American Medical Record Association (now AHIMA) and the American Hospital Association. After Modern Healthcare, he wrote a monthly column for Twin Cities Business explaining healthcare trends to a business audience, and he developed and executed content marketing plans for leading healthcare corporations as the editorial director for healthcare strategies at MSP Communications.

When he’s not reading and writing about healthcare, Dave spends his time riding the trails of DuPage County, IL, on his bike, tending his vegetable garden and daydreaming about being a lobster fisherman in Maine. He lives in Wheaton, IL, with his lovely wife of 40 years and his three children, none of whom want to be journalists or lobster fishermen.

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