UN health experts convene to improve patient safety

27 October 2004

With 10 per cent of patients being infected or otherwise harmed during their hospital stay, the United Nations public health agency today launched a programme to set worldwide standards that would reduce the number of preventable new illnesses, injuries and deaths that now cost billions of dollars.

The new initiative, called the World Alliance for Patient Safety, aims to underline the physicians' basic teaching: "First, do no harm."

It would focus on eliminating health-care infections, especially in 2005 and 2006. It would also involve patients, as individuals and in associations, in Alliance work, standardize norms and terminology, undertake studies of the prevalence of adverse effects, ensure that solutions are promoted and used and generate "best practices" guidelines.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that at least half of all medical equipment is unsafe and that 77 per cent of the reported cases of counterfeit and substandard drugs have surfaced in developing countries.

In addition to the human misery caused by hospital harm, the additional hospitalization, litigation, hospital-acquired infections, lost income, disability and medical expenses cost some countries between $6 billion and $29 billion, WHO said.

"Improved health care is perhaps humanity's greatest achievement of the last 100 years. Improving patient safety in clinics and hospitals is, in many cases, the best way there is to protect the advances we have made," WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook said.

Dr. Mirta Roses, Regional Director of the WHO Office for the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which is hosting the meeting in Washington, DC, said adverse events have affected the work of all health care employees in all clinics and hospitals in all countries.

To get the Alliance up and running, the United States, through its Department of Health and Human Services, and the United Kingdom committed initial funds and expertise.

The need for countermeasures is particularly intense in developing countries, "with millions of child and adult patients enduring prolonged ill-health, needless disability and even death, caused by medical errors, unsafe blood transfusions, counterfeit and substandard drugs, and overall unreliable practices within poor work conditions," said Dr. Ebrahim Samba of WHO's Office for Africa.


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