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Important questions about medical errors study

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Don Berwick and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement have done important work in addressing health care quality issues. But they may have overstepped the boundaries of evidence with a recent study that drew a lot of news coverage, claiming that hospitals they worked with saved over 122,000 lives by cutting down on errors and improving care.

“The Numbers Guy” column by Carl Bialik in the Wall Street Journal says the studies warrant a second opinion. Bialik quotes Dr. Bob Wachter of UCSF, author and lecturer on medical errors: “”I don’t think it saved 122,300.” He added that, like in a political campaign, the health-care campaign used “statistics selectively to try to mobilize your base to do good. It’s understandable. It’s not good science.”

Dr. Gil Welch of Dartmouth and the VA said, “I think there’s been a tendency in the errors business to first overstate the size of the problem, and now, I’m afraid, to overstate the effect of interventions on the other side.”

Read Bialik’s full article. It does a good job of questioning claims and pointing out how well-intentioned advocates may be driven by passion more than by evidence, and how journalists can easily get sucked into the vortex. (Bialik points out how the Wall Street Journal reported the Berwick claims, along with the Associated Press, U.S. News & World Report and many other media.)

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