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More risk from hospitals than flying

25th July 2011

Going into hospital is riskier than taking a passenger jet, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

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The Geneva-based body said that medical errors and infections kill millions of people each year.

WHO patient safety envoy Liam Donaldson told reporters that the chances of being subjected to an error in hospital were as high as one in 10.

And the chances of dying as a result of carelessness on the part of healthcare professionals were as high as one in 300, Donaldson said.

By comparison, the risk of dying in a plane crash is only about 1 in every 10 million passengers.

Donaldson said the standards of healthcare globally still had a long way to go.

Hundreds of millions of people are infected as a result of healthcare every year around the world.

Experts said that patients should ask more questions and make sure they are included in any decision-making process about their care.

They called on hospitals to respect basic hygiene standards, and to make use of a safe surgical procedural checklist issued by the WHO.

More than half of hospital acquired infections are preventable, experts say, calling on healthcare workers to wash their hands with alcohol gel or simple soap and water before touching any patients.

In the developed world, 7% of patients in hospital at any given time will acquire at least one healthcare-related infection, WHO said.

In the developing world, the figures are even more alarming, at 10% of all hospital patients.

The WHO warns that the longer patients stay in intensive care, the more they are at risk of acquired infections.

Among the biggest culprits are catheter tubes and ventilators.

Not all regions are the same, however. Europe typically sees around 4.5 million infections from hospitals every year, causing 37,000 deaths.

In the US, however, 1.7 million infections lead to a total of 100,000 deaths.

Donaldson said healthcare was a high-risk business, because of the fast-paced, high-tech environment it was delivered in, and the sheer number of personnel involved.

He said a heart operation could involve as many as 60 different people.

As well as infections, many patients receive injuries after falling in hospital, and medication errors were also a common cause of preventable death.

According to WHO clean care expert Benedetta Allegranzi, ICUs and neonatal units carried the highest risk of infection.

The WHO's surgical safety checklist has now been adopted by 100,000 hospitals around the world.

The checklist has been shown to reduce complications around surgery by as much as 33%, and surgery-related deaths by half.

Proper worldwide deployment of the checklist could save a further half a million lives, the WHO says.

Donaldson said hospitals that still did not use the checklist were unsafe.


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