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According to a new study from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 13.5 percent of hospitalized Medicare beneficiaries experienced adverse events during their hospital stays. Of the nearly 1 million Medicare beneficiaries discharged from hospitals in October 2008, about 1 in 7 experienced an adverse event that met at least 1 of the government’s criteria to be considered harmed as a result of problems with the medical care provided.

The study, ADVERSE EVENTS IN HOSPITALS: NATIONAL INCIDENCE AMONG MEDICARE BENEFICIARIES, finds that unexpected adverse events added at least $4.4 billion a year to government health costs and contributed to the deaths of about 180,000 patients a year.

In a single month, October 2008, the report estimated that some 134,000 Medicare patients experienced at least one adverse event, ranging from a temporary health setback to death, during a hospital stay. It said 44 percent of them were “clearly or likely preventable.”

The study finds that hospital infections are a major source of problems, but the inspector general’s report found other events to be more common. The most frequent problems classified as adverse events are those related to medication, like excessive bleeding, followed by those related to patient care, like intravenous fluid overload, and those related to surgery and to infection.

The most serious events, like surgery on the wrong patient, amounted to less than 1 percent of the events tallied. Those are known as “never events” — because they “should never occur in a health care setting.”

The report concludes by calling for more oversight and financial incentives for hospitals to reduce errors. The inspector general’s study is the first to obtain a statistically valid national incidence rate for adverse events in a hospitalized population, the officials said. Previous estimates had extrapolated data from more limited studies.

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