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Mistakes cost NHS up to £2.5bn a year, says health secretary Jeremy Hunt

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt will say a culture change is needed to stop the NHS wasting money. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Hospitals are wasting up to £2.5bn a year of the NHS’s budget through poor care and medical errors, such as giving patients the wrong drug, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, will claim on Thursday.

Hunt will renew his criticism of inadequate patient safety standards in the NHS by warning of a “dangerous nexus between poor care and higher cost”.

He will cite a new report, commissioned by the Department of Health, which found that poor care costs the NHS at least £1bn a year, and possibly as much as £2.5bn.

It estimates that mistakes with medication, such as giving someone too much of a drug, cost the NHS up to £770m in treating patients who have had an adverse reaction to a drug or suffered harm as a result.

Reducing the number of patients who develop an infection after orthopaedic surgery could save £200m-£300m, it adds, as infection in someone who has had a new hip or knee fitted can cost up to £70,000.

Similarly, better recognition of sepsis, a blood infection that kills an estimated 37,000 people a year, could save a further £196m, according to the research by Frontier Economics, which reviewed previous studies into the costs of patient safety lapses.

Patients who develop a pressure ulcer in hospital end up staying there for an average extra 12 days, at an annual cost of £49m.

Urinary tract infections caused by a patient’s catheter cost £67m, blood clots another £53m and falls a further £36m, he will say.

In a speech at Birmingham Children’s hospital, Hunt will also make clear to the bosses of NHS hospital trusts that the unprecedented financial challenge facing the service is no reason not to improve safety and that inadequate care of patients costs them more money in the end.

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“If you’re short of money, poor care is about the most wasteful and expensive thing you can do,” he is expected to say.

But doctors’ and nurses’ leaders challenged Hunt and claimed that staff shortages and inadequate budgets to deal with rising demand needed to be addressed in order for patient safety to improve.

Dr Mark Porter, the leader of the British Medical Association, said investment was needed to help embed a patient safety culture in the NHS.

“However, we have an NHS in which unprecedented need and demand is being met by the government with falling frontline budgets and overstretched doctors in key specialities such as general practice and emergency care, and a system that too often refuses to listen to its professional staff and their concerns.”

Dr Peter Carter, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), blamed poor care on understaffing.

“Falls and preventable conditions such as pressure ulcers happen when there are not enough staff on a ward to care properly for every patient, not because nurses are unaware that these things should be prevented.

“Poor care is more expensive and preventing it will save money, but poor care is usually caused by a lack of investment.

“If there are not enough nurses on a ward to care for vulnerable patients, there will inevitably be more falls and more preventable conditions.

“Though these proposals are well intended, logic suggests that you need to invest in additional staff first, and then you will find that your short-term investment leads to longer-term savings.”

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