Introduction Monitoring hospital mortality rates is widely recommended. However, the number of preventable deaths remains uncertain with estimates in England ranging from 840 to 40 000 per year, these being derived from studies that identified adverse events but not whether events contributed to death or shortened life expectancy of those affected.
Methods Retrospective case record reviews of 1000 adults who died in 2009 in 10 acute hospitals in England were undertaken. Trained physician reviewers estimated life expectancy on admission, to identified problems in care contributing to death and judged if deaths were preventable taking into account patients' overall condition at that time.
Results Reviewers judged 5.2% (95% CI 3.8% to 6.6%) of deaths as having a 50% or greater chance of being preventable. The principal problems associated with preventable deaths were poor clinical monitoring (31.3%; 95% CI 23.9 to 39.7), diagnostic errors (29.7%; 95% CI 22.5% to 38.1%), and inadequate drug or fluid management (21.1%; 95% CI 14.9 to 29.0). Extrapolating from these figures suggests there would have been 11 859 (95% CI 8712 to 14 983) adult preventable deaths in hospitals in England. Most preventable deaths (60%) occurred in elderly, frail patients with multiple comorbidities judged to have had less than 1 year of life left to live.
Conclusions The incidence of preventable hospital deaths is much lower than previous estimates. The burden of harm from preventable problems in care is still substantial. A focus on deaths may not be the most efficient approach to identify opportunities for improvement given the low proportion of deaths due to problems with healthcare.
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Funding The funders of the study, the National Institute of Health Research, Research for Patient Benefit Programme had no role in study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, or composition of the report. The corresponding author had full access to all data in the study and had final responsibility for the decision to submit for publication. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.
Competing interests All authors have completed the unified competing interest form at http://www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare that neither authors nor their family relations have a financial or non-financial interest that might be relevant to the submitted work.
Patient consent Patients in the study were deceased. Section 251 of the National Health Service Act 2006 for the use of patient identifiable information without consent was gained.
Ethics approval Ethics approval was received from the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and the Institute of Neurology joint multi-centre research ethics committee and research governance approval was granted by each participating Trust.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
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