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Ignoring Patient Safety = $1 Trillion Waste

Former Bush administration Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill identified a simple but crucial element that should be front and center in the health care reform debate and legislation: improving patient safety, which would, in turn, reduce health care costs.

O’Neill rhetorically asked in this New York Times op-ed piece:

  • Which of the reform proposals will eliminate the millions of infections acquired at hospitals every year?
  • Which of the proposals will eliminate the annual toll of 300 million medication errors? 
  • Which of the proposals will eliminate pneumonia caused by ventilators?
  • Which of the proposals will eliminate falls that injure hospital patients?
  • Which of the proposals will capture even a fraction of the roughly $1 trillion of annual “waste” that is associated with the kinds of process failures that these questions imply?

“So far,” O’Neill wrote, “The answer to each question is ‘none.’”

O’Neill calls it waste – that is, the unnecessary harms done to patients on a daily basis and, he estimates, a trillion dollars in annual costs to address those harms. He said that hospitals themselves can adopt simple processes, such as hand-washing and proper preparation of surgical sites, to cut down on costly injuries and deaths. He also suggested that members of Congress seek more information on the dire problem of hospital-acquired infections, provider errors and other similar “waste indictors.”  To sum up, he said: “(A)ny health care reform that does not address the pervasive waste and the associated burden of needless suffering for patients and staff alike will give us little to celebrate.”

Congress should heed O’Neill’s call. 

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