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Cutting Down Medical Mistakes

President Clinton Tuesday will announce two actions aimed at reducing those sometimes deadly medical errors, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer. He'll order federal agencies that deal with health care to start plans to cut down on mistakes.


The government is the nation's biggest health care buyer. Medicare and Medicaid alone cover up to 80 million people, so the move could have a major impact.


The president will also announce a task force to look into the overall problem of medical mistakes.


A recent report said the errors kill tens of thousands of Americans each year.


On Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is working on legislation with a similar goal.


Both efforts track suggestions last week from the Institute of Medicine, which advises Congress on scientific matters, on ways to reduce the room for error.


"I believe we can have a strong bipartisan bill in the next session," Kennedy, senior Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, told reporters Monday. He said Republican senators, including committee's chairman, Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., and Sen. Bill Frist, a heart surgeon from Tennessee, were interested in holding hearings on the matter.


President Clinton meets Tuesday with officials from the Institute of Medicine, health care providers and hospitals to discuss initiatives.


Mr. Clinton's first steps toward making mistakes less likely include a partnership with the American Hospital Association, which will ask its 5,000 members to produce a report on ways to cut down on errors.


Kennedy said both the legislation and the White House action would be based on the Institute of Medicine recommendations. He called the institute's goal of reducing medical errors by 50 percent "optimistic," but also said any legislation would adopt similar goals.


The institute said it found flaws in the way hospitals, clinics and pharmacies operate. It cited two studies that estimated hospital errors cost at least 44,000, and perhaps as many as 98,000, lives a year.


Some problems are familiar, it suggested: Doctors' famously poor handwriting too often leaves pharmacists squinting at tiny paper prescriptions, and too many drug names sound alike.


Also, medical science advances so rapidly that it is difficult for health care workers to keep up with the latest treatments and new dangers. Technology poses a hazard when device models change from year to year.


And most health professionals do not have their competence regularly re-tested after they are licensed to practice, the report said.


Kennedy's legislation, among other things, would create a national center for patient safety that would set safety goals, track progress in achieving them and serve as a clearinghouse for organizations seeking tips on improving medical safety.


The president recently signed a bill that provides $40 million to improve health care and to help train new pediatricians. The Reearch Quality Act authorized a new grant program to support children's hospitals that train doctors.


"In an increasingly competitive health care market dominated by managed care, teaching hospitals struggle to cover the significant costs associated with training," Mr. Clinton said in a statement, adding that the new program would "provide much needed support for the training of these critical health providers."


The Institute of Medicine said a center like Kennedy's would cost $35 million to set up. Eventually, the report said, Congress should spend $100 million a year in safety research, even building prototypes of safety systems.


Still, that would be just a fraction of the estimated $8.8 billion spent each year as a result of medical mistakes, the report calculated.


Kennedy's other proposals include requirements for reporting errors. About 20 states now require such reports, but how much information they require and what penalties they impose for errors varies widelythe report said.
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