It is more dangerous to go to hospital than to fly on a plane, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that millions of patients die annually around the world from medical errors and infections associated with health care.

Liam Donaldson, who has just been appointed envoy for patient safety for WHO said:

“If you were admitted to hospital tomorrow in any country, your chances of being subjected to an error in your care would be something like 1 in 10. Your chances of dying due to an error in health care would be 1 in 300.”

You are much less likely to die in a plane crash, where the risk is approximately 1 in 10 million. Liam Donaldson used to be England’s chief medical officer. He said that health care generally around the world still has a long way to go, he added.

In order to reduce the shocking numbers of individuals who develop health care related infections annually, Donaldson says that patients need to be involved in the decision-making process in hospitals; they need to ask questions, hospitals must maintain at least basic hygiene standards as well as conforming to WHO’s checklist to make sure surgical interventions are done safely.

If health care staff always washed their hands with soap and water or some alcohol-based handrub before touching patients, the number of acquired infections would go down by more than half.

WHO statistics show that in the developed world, 7 in every 100 patients who are admitted to hospital develop at least one infection linked to health care – in developing countries the figure is 10 in every 100.

Infection risk is closely linked to how long a patient stays in an intensive care unit (ICU). Urinary catheters, ventilators and some other medical devices are common sources of infections.

According to WHO figures, infection risk is lower in the USA than in Europe, but death from acquired infection risk is higher:

  • USA – 1.7 million hospital-acquired infections annually, which result in about 100,000 deaths.
  • Europe – 4.5 million hospital-acquired infections annually, which result in about 37,000 deaths.

Donaldson said:

“Health care is a high-risk business, inevitably, because people are sick and modern health care is delivered in a fast-moving, high-pressured environment involving a lot of complex technology and a lot of people.

Infection is a big problem, injuries after falls in hospitals is a big problem and then there are problems that are on a smaller scale but result in preventable deaths. Medication errors are common.”

Over 100,000 hospitals globally follow WHO’s surgical safety checklist. WHO says its checklist, if followed properly, can reduce death rates considerably, as well a surgery complications. The UN agency extrapolated that if all hospitals around the world did the same, half a million fewer people would lose their lives each year.

Donaldson said he personally would not use a hospital if he needed an operation, if that hospital was not using the checklist. He said the hospital, in his opinion, would not be safe.

In his new role as Envoy for Patient Safety for WHO, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson will help promote patient safety as a worldwide public health priority. His aim also includes mobilizing political support for WHO Patient Safety with healthcare leaders worldwide as well as major donors, governments and philanthropic organizations. He will be advisor to WHO Director General on strategic issues related to patient safety.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, said:

“With this nomination, WHO is signalling the importance of ensuring that patients get safe, high quality health care all around the world. With the support and intellectual leadership of Sir Liam, the Patient Safety Programme has grown from a small specialist initiative within WHO to a global advocacy and scientific community, with activities in over 140 countries and all six WHO regions. It is now poised to do even more.”

“WHO Patient Safety Curriculum Guide”

Written by Christian Nordqvist