Anderson, Ian. "Hospital Errors are Number Three Killer in Australia," New Scientist 10 June
1995, p. 5.
This is the article as it appeared in the New Scientist.
As many as 14,000 people die in Australian hospitals each year as a result of mistakes by doctors
and nurses, according to a government report. This means that preventable deaths in hospital are
the third largest killer after heart disease and cancer. A further 25,000 to 30,000 people suffer
some degree of permanent disability after treatment.
The figures were released last week by the Australian health minister Carmen Lawrence, who
called them "disturbing." Lawrence has set up a 13-member task force which has until December
to provide recommendations on how to prevent these deaths and injuries.
Lawrence's revelation sparked a storm of protest from doctors and medical institutions, who
claim that the figures, based on a survey in two states, were released before the study was
complete. David Theile, president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, said that the
public was being alarmed unnecessarily.
But insider say that those behind the survey felt the figures were so alarming that there was a risk
they would leak out before the study was published, and that a controlled release by the minister
was preferable. The survey, called the Australian Hospital Care Study, due to be published in
The study, undertaken in 1992 by university researchers from Adelaide, South Australia, and
Newcastle, New South Wales, was based on 14,179 patients who were admitted to 28 privates
and public hospitals in the two states. The researchers claim that because Australia has a uniform
system of health-care the results can be extrapolated to the whole country.
They identified what they call "adverse events." These ranged from "unintended injuries"
resulting in temporary or permanent disability, or a prolonged hospital stay, to death "caused by
health-care management and not the patient's underlying disease." About 16 percent of patients
suffered an "adverse event."
In 1992, 2.83 million people were admitted to hospital in Australia. Extrapolating from the data
from the 28 hospitals, this means just over 450,000 suffered an "adverse event." About half of
these could have been prevented according to a panel of specialists who reviewed the data. About
20 percent of these, of 44,000 people, suffered permanent disability or died. The death toll was
Deaths were caused by mistakes such as allowing air to enter the brain during surgery, resulting
in a stroke, or mislaying pathology reports so that patients were discharged instead of receiving
the treatment they needed.
Of the preventable events, almost half were linked to an operation. About 15 percent involved
the way the hospital was run, including misplaced records, inadequate supervision, or a lack of
communication. About 13 percent resulted from errors in diagnosis and 2 percent were related to
One of the authors of the report, Bill Runciman, head of anesthetics and intensive care at the
Royal Adelaide Hospital, warns that it is easy to misinterpret the rests. "The bald figures are very
scare," he says. "But most of those who died were aged over 60 and were involved with risky
Runciman says that the figures don't take account of the benefits. "The figures are a reflection of
a society that has access to sophisticated high-tech health-care. Given what was being attempted
in many cases, they are not all that surprising."