Problems related to surgery—mostly from surgical wound infections—are the most common reason that people wind up readmitted to the hospital, according to a new study. Patient safety expert Lucian Leape says such complications are a significant problem that causes much pain and suffering.

Leape, adjunct professor of health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote about surgical complications—and how to reduce them—in a February 3, 2015 JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) editorial accompanying the study.

The study, which looked at 500,000 operations in the U.S., found a nearly 6% overall hospital readmission rate in 2012, mostly attributable to surgical complications. The most frequent complication—infections from surgical wounds—occurred in about 5,500 patients. But nationwide the total number of these infections “is probably 20 to 30 times higher than that: 111,000 to 167,000,” Leape told HealthDay. “Cutting that in half, which I believe is possible, would eliminate pain and suffering in tens of thousands of people every year.”

Leape said systems changes are key to reducing the rate of surgical complications. “The most powerful methods for reducing harm are feedback, learning from the best, and working in collaboration,” he wrote in the JAMA editorial.

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