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WASHINGTON (AP) – Dispensing medicines by computer, hiring more nurses and making sure patients better understand their treatments are ways that hospitals can reduce medical errors, the government said Tuesday.

The trouble is, few hospitals follow even the most effective ways to cut out mistakes, federal health researchers said.

“The nation’s health care leaders need to know what the science says about where the opportunities exist to make patient care safer right now,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

The department’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reviewed 79 patient safety practices. It said 73 are likely to improve patient safety – including many that the researchers considered highly proven to work, but are not performed routinely in the nation’s hospitals and nursing homes.

Among the highly proven practices are giving patients antibiotics just before surgery to prevent infections; using ultrasound to help guide the insertion of central intravenous lines and prevent punctured arteries and other complications; and giving surgery patients beta blockers to prevent heart attacks during or after the operation.

In the case of computerized prescriptions, just 13 percent of 500 hospitals answering a recent survey said they used electronic prescription systems, researchers said. An additional 27 percent said they were working on installing such systems.

While 80 percent to 90 percent of surgical patients received pre-surgery antibiotic treatments, 25 percent to 50 percent of them may not have been given the treatments in the proper manner, at the right time or for the duration needed, the report said.

The researchers said some practices haven’t been sufficiently tested or carry important potential risks. For instance, some studies have recommended large increases in antibiotics to prevent infections, but the practice also has the potential to create antibiotic resistance.

The agency’s latest report comes as concern rises about medical mistakes. Estimates in recent years say 44,000 to 98,000 people die each year because of medical mistakes, the researchers said.

The agency reviewed hundreds of studies and programs expressly focused on reducing or preventing mistakes.

Researchers were surprised that even highly touted practices – namely, increased use of computer technology, improved hand-washing compliance and more nurses – had not been studied closely.

“There needs to be more research in these areas so that we know more about which practices are most effective and how complex or costly they would be to put into place,” said Dr. John M. Eisenberg, who directs the health care quality agency.

The agency also stressed that hospitals need to do more to coordinate their fight against mistakes.

The agency will award nearly $50 million in grants over the next few months to support patient-safety research.


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality:

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