Insurance companies spend $1.5 billion a year on the treatment of preventable medical errors that occur during or after surgery, according to a study by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

That figure may take on extra significance for financially strapped hospitals, as Medicare and major insurers across the country stop paying for so-called “never events.” The study also quantifies the cost impact that errors have on liability claims.

Economists William E. Encinosa, PhD, and Fred J. Hellinger, PhD, analyzed MarketScan insurance claims for 2001-2002. They looked for 14 AHRQ Patient Safety Indicators (PSIs) among the 161,004 surgeries they found. Excess 90-day costs ranged from $646 for technical problems (accidental laceration, pneumothorax, etc.) to $28,218 for acute respiratory failure, with up to 20% of these incurred post discharge.

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They list several other causes of additional costs associated with PSIs.

  • Postoperative infections: $19,480 (or 48% more than patients whose surgeries were error-free).
  • Metabolic problems, including kidney failure or uncontrolled blood sugar: $11,797 (32% more).
  • Blood clots or other vascular or pulmonary problems: $7,838 (25% more).
  • Wound opening: $1,426 (6% more).

Published online in Health Services Research, the study also found preventable errors were responsible for one of every 10 deaths within 90 days of surgery. A third of the deaths occurred after initial hospital discharge.