Report: Fewer hospital mistakes save thousands of lives

(CNN) -- The chances you will get sicker or even die just because you went to the hospital have gone down dramatically.

This has been a huge problem. For many years hospital mistakes and hospital acquired infections have been one of the biggest killers of Americans. Yet a new report shows that patient safety efforts at U.S. hospitals seem to be paying off.

An estimated 50,000 more patients are alive today that wouldn't be if hospitals kept making the same number of mistakes they did in 2010, according to this new report from the Health and Human Services Department (HHS). It released the new numbers Tuesday and called the improvement -- particularly the improvements in 2013 -- "remarkable."

"Hospital-acquired conditions," as they are called in the industry, include falls, pressure ulcers, infections at surgical sites, pneumonia caused by a patient's ventilator, catheter problems, and problems with a patient's drugs.

Preliminary estimates show that in total, hospital patients experienced 1.3 million fewer instances of harm from 2010 to 2013. This translates to a 17% decrease over the three-year period.

This is good news since a 2010 report from HHS's Office of the Inspector General had found that 27% of Medicare patients had come to some kind of harm because of the care they received at the hospital. And these weren't simple incidents. Half of those patients experienced a significant problem that ended in serious or permanent injury or even death.

Hospital-acquired infections and mistakes have cost the industry and taxpayers billions. And at any given time about 1 in every 25 inpatients has an infection related to hospital care according to data from the CDC. The most common health care-associated infections were pneumonia, surgical site infections, gastrointestinal infections, urinary tract infections, and bloodstream infections.

This latest report found the most improvement was in the mistakes hospitals make with a patient's drugs. Too often patients get hurt because they've been given too much medicine or a hospital has given them a drug they are allergic to or they are even giving the wrong drug. There was a 40% reduction in these kind of mistakes.

The report also found there were fewer patients that developed bed sores and fewer patients who experienced infections from catheters.

Fixing this problem has been a big priority for the industry and for the government that has spent years working on ways to compel hospitals to better protect their patients.

It's unclear from the report what made the most difference. New financial incentives from Medicare to make fewer mistakes may have played a role. Technological advances could also be key.

All of this is good news for patients and it is great news for the health care system itself. Fewer mistakes saved $12 billion over the past three years according to the report.

While she said there is still more work to do, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell seemed happy about the progress.

She called the results "welcome news for patients and their families."

"These data represent significant progress in improving the quality of care that patients receive while spending our health care dollars more wisely. HHS will work with partners across the country to continue to build on this progress."