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New database reveals thousands of hospital violation reports online

WASHINGTON — Hospitals make mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes. A patient may get the wrong medication or even undergo surgery intended for another person. When errors like these are reported, state and federal officials inspect the hospital in question and file a detailed report.

Now, for the first time, this vital information on the quality and safety of the nation’s hospitals has been made available to the public online.

A new website, www.hospitalinspections.org, includes detailed reports of hospital violations dating back to January 2011, searchable by city, state, name of the hospital and key word. Previously, these reports were filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), and released only through a Freedom of Information Act request, an arduous, time-consuming process. Even then, the reports were provided in paper format only, making them cumbersome to analyze.

Release of this critical electronic information by CMS is the result of years of advocacy by the Association of Health Care Journalists, with funding from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The new database makes full inspection reports for acute care hospitals and rural critical access hospitals instantly available to journalists and consumers interested in the quality of their local hospitals.

The database also reveals national trends in hospital errors. For example, key word searches yield the incidence of certain violations across all hospitals. A search on the word “abuse,” for example, yields 862 violations at 204 hospitals since 2011.

Once they receive a complaint, federal and state inspectors attempt to discover the cause of a hospital error or violation. For example, poor safety procedures result in thousands of patients slipping and falling each year in U.S. hospitals, and poor sterilization methods cause thousands more to contract infections. Poor administrative procedures can result in patients receiving wrong treatments.

Once the causes of specific problems are determined, federal and state authorities require hospitals to file a plan to correct them. These plans still remain under wraps, as do inspection reports on psychiatric hospitals and long-term care hospitals.

Also unavailable are the results of complaint-based and routine inspections by the nation’s largest private hospital accreditation organization, The Joint Commission. Because the commission is a private entity, it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. For this reason, the health care journalism association has launched a new effort to gain the release of these reports on hospital quality and safety.

The commission has rejected two previous requests by the journalism group saying disclosure of the information would hamper its efforts to improve hospital quality.

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