Despite all the work in the last decade to improve patient safety and raise awareness of preventable medical errors, physicians by and large have been slow to support the movement, a leader in patient safety said here.

"The fact of the matter is a number of physicians are not involved, are a bit skeptical about it, and have really not participated as they should," Lucian Leape, MD, adjunct professor of health policy and management at Harvard University, said during a panel discussion at the Association of Health Care Journalists' annual meeting.

The Institute of Medicine's landmark 1999 report, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System, found that more than 98,000 patients die every year from preventable medical errors.

The report spawned a number of initiatives -- mostly hospital-led -- to reduce the number of patient deaths. The 100,000 Lives Campaign, a move to enact six specific patient-safety practices in hospitals around the country, ended up saving more than 122,000 lives.

But individual programs have had varying degrees of success, Leape said. "The fact of the matter is they haven't made a very big dent in patient safety overall."

Recent studies -- including a study of six North Carolina hospitals working on patient safety -- haven't been able to show a big drop in deaths.

One of the reasons why is the lack of doctor support, Leape said, suggesting several explanations for why such support is lacking.

For one thing, even though there might be 100,000 deaths from preventable medical errors, there are 800,000 doctors, he pointed out. The chance of any of them seeing such a death is minimal.

Another possible reason is that "Doctors tend to feel they have an individual veto over safe practices," said Leape, who is sometimes called the father of patient safety. "If they don't agree with something, they feel they don't have to follow it."

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