Hospitals

Uncompensated care cripples some hospitals: MedCity Morning Read, Feb. 10, 2010

As hospitals across the country spend more and more on uncompensated care–that is, care provided largely in emergency rooms for those without health insurance–the survival of some of those hospitals is threatened. Hospitals had hoped that federal health reform, which would’ve mandated that Americans obtain health insurance, would ease the burden of uncompensated care.

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Highlights of the important and the interesting from the world of health care:

Is uncompensated care the next crisis in health care? As hospitals across the country spend more and more on uncompensated care–that is,  care provided largely in emergency rooms for those without health insurance–the survival of some of those hospitals is threatened. Hospitals had hoped that federal health reform, which would’ve mandated that Americans obtain health insurance, would ease the burden of uncompensated care, the New York Times reports. But with health reform on the ropes, hospitals’ worries continue to grow. Nationwide the cost of uncompensated care reached a towering $36 billion in 2008 and that number is likely to rise. As health costs rise and economy remains weak that number could soar in the coming years.

Though the federal health overhaul surely wouldn’t have completely solved the problem, it likely would’ve at least helped hospitals’ financial viability. Of course, what’s a crisis for some is always an opportunity for others, as the uncompensated care problem could increasingly drive smaller hospitals into the arms of large health systems.

“The smaller to medium-size single-site hospitals are the ones who are going to be most at risk,” said one analyst, who predicts that some of those hospitals will end up being purchased or absorbed by larger systems.

Medical errors coming back into focus: With news surfacing that a medical error led to the infection that killed Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, expect the topic of medical errors to attract plenty of media attention this week. (Murtha’s intestine was nicked during gallbladder surgery, leading to the infection.) Medical errors may very well be more widespread than the average American thinks. In a recent Mayo Clinic study, 9 percent of doctors admitted to making an error in the previous three months and 70 percent admitted fault.

The holy grail when it comes to medical errors, a 1999 study by the Institutes of Medicine titled “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System,” put the problem in clearer focus. The report estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 people die each year in hospitals from medical errors, and that doesn’t even take into account what one imagines to be numerous errors that occur in private physician offices. The cost of medical errors to to the nation each year is $37.6 billion, according to the report. So do caps on malpractice damages still seem like a good idea?

Cutting down on radiation errors: The FDA is looking to require manufacturers of medical imaging machines to include safety controls that would alert users of excessive radiation doses, the Boston Globe reports. The proposal comes on the heels of numerous reports of patients mistakenly receiving sometimes deadly doses of radiation from machines such as CT scanners. The errors can be the result of software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing and training. The average American’s total radiation exposure has nearly doubled in the past three decades, largely due to CT scans and other next-generation imaging tests, the Globe says.

How the soft-drink industry killed a tax: With lots of hype for a new Obama administration plan that could expel junk food from school cafeterias, it’s instructive to take a look at how a measure that similarly could’ve led to a reduction in American obesity was killed. The L.A. Times published a fine article about how the soft drink industry essentially recruited a number of groups like the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity Institute and the National Hispana Leadership Institute that should’ve been all for a soft drink tax.

The industry curried the favor of those types of groups, including one that claims to advocate for the health of Hispanics, by donating cash and convincing them that a soft-drink tax would hit low-income people disproportionately, which is kind of the idea since diabetes is typically a greater threat to such Americans. Additionally, the industry funded junk science that questioned the relationship between soda consumption and health problems, including a report written by an employee of a high-fructose corn syrup producer, the Times reports. The article provides a fine study of how one industry can overpower legislation that would be harmful to it, yet would be beneficial to America’s health. Sadly, it likely happens all the time.