By Kathleen Sebelius and David Cote
April 25, 2011
Many Americans get the best health care available. The United States has the world's most skilled doctors and nurses and its finest hospitals, and people come from across the globe to get care here that they can't get anywhere else. This is a source of great national pride.
But for far too many patients, we fall short. A recent study found that as many as one out of three hospital patients is harmed by his or her care. And the Institute of Medicine estimates that as many as 100,000 Americans die each year from preventable medical errors in hospitals. That's about the number of annual deaths caused by auto accidents, AIDS, and breast cancer combined.
These mistakes don't just cause pain and anguish. They also contribute to the rising cost of health care, which is stretching family, business, and government budgets to the limit. Yet the problem gets nowhere near the attention it should.
That's why the Obama administration and employers such as Honeywell have joined doctors, nurses, hospitals, health insurers, and patient advocates to launch the Partnership for Patients, an unprecedented alliance that will promote innovations to improve hospital care and reduce wasteful spending nationwide.
When patients are harmed in our health-care system, it's not because of a careless workforce. Health-care professionals want to offer good care. But good people get trapped in bad systems. Fragmented processes, unreliable equipment, and poor communication can all lead to dangerous medical errors.
It doesn't have to be that way. Air travel is extremely safe today because planes and navigation systems have been designed and refined to guard against accidents and human error. And innovative hospitals are demonstrating that we can do the same in health care.
The intensive-care unit at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, in Virginia, went five years without a single central-line bloodstream infection, a common hospital error. Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio, has reduced surgical complications by 60 percent. And many hospitals are finding that providing better, safer care is also a powerful way to lower costs.
But these innovations have been slow to spread. Too often, hospitals were pursuing one strategy, employers were pursuing another, government was pursing a third, and there was little coordination among them.
The Partnership for Patients seeks to combine and unify efforts to improve patient safety. The nationwide coalition's broad list of partners includes more than 500 hospitals, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in Boston, to Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, in California; major employers, from Motorola to Johnson & Johnson; provider organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians; advocacy groups such as the National Patient Safety Foundation; and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. And the list is growing.
By working together to improve processes, make better use of data, compare quality across the system, and support information technology that allows best practices to be rapidly shared, we can keep patients safer and bring down costs. Over the years, employers in every industry have learned that doing something right costs less than doing it wrong. With this partnership, we are applying the same principle to health care.
We are setting two ambitious goals. In the next three years, we want to reduce preventable injuries in hospitals by 40 percent. And we want to cut readmissions by 20 percent, targeting return hospital trips that shouldn't occur.
Achieving these goals would save 60,000 lives, protect more than 1.5 million patients from complications that would put them back in the hospital, and save $50 billion over 10 years in Medicare costs alone, as well as tens of billions more across the health-care system.
Ultimately, our goal is to eliminate preventable medical errors altogether. As health-care costs continue to rise rapidly, we have two choices: Reduce access to care, or improve care. By assembling this partnership, we are choosing improvement.
If we succeed, everyone will benefit. Families will have more healthy years to share with their loved ones, businesses will enjoy lower costs and greater competitiveness, and the nation will be healthier, stronger, and more prosperous.
Kathleen Sebelius is the U.S. secretary of health and human services. David Cote is the CEO of Honeywell International.