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Is a New Federal Patient Safety Effort Doing Enough to Curb Medical Errors?

The Medicare program is betting on a new course of action to curb what one medical journal has dubbed an “epidemic” of uncontrolled patient harm.

The effort is pegged to the success of a little-known entity called a “hospital engagement network” (HEN). In December, the government selected 26 HENs and charged them with preventing more than 60,000 deaths and 1.8 million injuries from so-called “hospital-acquired conditions” over the next three years. That would be the equivalent of eliminating all deaths from HIV/AIDS or homicide over the same period.

Despite those big numbers, and an initial price tag of $218 million, it’s unclear whether the HENs are adequately ambitious or still only pecking away at the patient safety problem. While this is by far the most comprehensive public or private patient safety effort ever attempted in this country, it still aims to eliminate less than half the documented, preventable patient harm.

The inspiration for these networks comes from similar collaborative projects run by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and other groups. Dr. Donald Berwick, IHI’s founder and president, headed up the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for two years and launched a larger Partnership for Patients that includes the HENs.

In December, the government chose a mix of national and local groups — primarily health systems and hospital organizations — to run individual HENs. Each HEN is charged with spreading safety-improvement innovations that have been proven to work in leading hospitals to others through intensive training programs and technical assistance. Although the program lasts three years, initial HEN contracts are for two years, with an “option year” dependent upon performance.

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