U.N. agency launches effort against medical errors

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Medical mistakes as basic as hospital workers spreading infections by not washing their hands hurt millions of people worldwide each day, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday in launching an effort to curb such errors.

Two nurses attend to Hulya Ismail, who is suffering from Rift Valley Fever, at Garissa hospital, north-east of Nairobi, January 9, 2007. Errors in medical care affect 10 percent of patients worldwide, according to the United Nations health agency, which issued a checklist on Wednesday to help doctors and nurses avoid common mistakes. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

Dr. Liam Donaldson, a Briton heading the U.N. agency’s campaign, unveiled nine recommendations to help medical facilities worldwide avoid preventable deaths and injuries from what he called an unacceptably high number of errors.

The WHO said medical errors affect one in 10 patients worldwide and that at any given time more than 1.4 million people suffer from infections acquired in hospitals.

“We were struck with the commonality of these problems around the world,” Dr. Dennis O’Leary, who heads the commission that evaluates and accredits U.S. hospitals and who helped craft the recommendations, told a news conference.

Some problems are more prevalent in certain parts of the world.

Unsafe injections with reused and unsterilized equipment are believed to occur most often in South Asia, the Middle East and Western Pacific regions.

In sub-Saharan Africa, up to 18 percent of injections are given with reused syringes or unsterilized needles, increasing the risk of hepatitis and HIV, the WHO said.

The recommendations were drafted with feedback from experts from more than 100 nations and included steps to:

-- improve hand hygiene of medical workers partly by making alcohol-based hand rubs widely available;

-- ensure proper patient identification to guard against one person getting medicine intended for another or newborns being given to the wrong parents;

-- ensure operations are performed on the right body parts;

-- double-check similar-sounding medication names and resolve the problem of illegible prescriptions;

-- ban reuse of needles to prevent transmission of viruses that cause AIDS and hepatitis;

-- ensure medical workers communicate about patients’ care and condition when passing care responsibility to other,

-- and control concentrated electrolyte solutions and avoid catheter and tubing connection problems.

Harmful mistakes by medical professionals have occurred throughout history, but the issue is getting closer scrutiny now from many experts who think simple steps can reduce them.

Donaldson blamed the problem on complacency. “We need to remember that we have a problem, and it’s time that we start tackling it in earnest,” he said.

“Different places are going to have to set their own priorities and, maybe more importantly, figure out how they’re going to address those,” O’Leary said.

Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva