Healthcare miscommunication cost $1.7B--and nearly 2,000 lives

Here's one more reason why physician practices and hospitals must make it a goal to improve communications: new research shows poor communication has a body count of more than 1,700.

Communication problems were a contributing factor in 7,149 cases (30 percent) of 23,000 medical malpractice claims filed between 2009 and 2013, according to the report, published by research/analysis firm CRICO Strategies. That percentage includes 1,744 deaths and $1.7 billion in hospital costs, the report found. In addition, 37 percent of all high-severity injury cases involved communication failures.

However, researchers said the statistics they compiled are likely only scratching the surface, as there are likely numerous communication-related patient harms that did not lead to malpractice claims.  

Common breakdowns in communication include miscommunication about a patient's condition, inadequate informed consent, poor documentation and an unsympathetic response to a patient's complaint.

Patient safety advocates have pushed for improved healthcare communication for decades, spurred by the 1994 death of a Boston Globe reporter from a chemotherapy overdose, and the numbers in the CRICO report indicate disappointingly little progress on the issue in the intervening years, according to Frank Federico, vice president for patient safety at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. "We've been working on this for a long time, and it still continues to be a big problem," Federico told STAT

Indeed, the report found that one man died after a nurse noticed, but failed to alert the surgeon that the patient was experiencing signs of internal bleeding. Another case involved a diabetic patient who collapsed and died after staff at a medical practice failed to give the primary care provider telephone messages from the patient.

The report follows another major piece of bad news for the patient safety movement, the 2013 revelation that years after the pivotal "To Err is Human" report, medical errors were the third-leading cause of death in the nation, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

The latest report points blame at multiple factors within healthcare workplaces for the errors, including ambiguity about roles and responsibilities, overwhelming workloads and problems within workplace hierarchies.

"If the systems that providers rely on to alert them to information gaps or discrepancies are inadequate, then misinformation can lead to mismanaged care, unmet expectations, and patient harm," the report states.

To learn more:
- download the report (.pdf)
- read the STAT article