December 2, 2014 5:58 PM EST

Hospitals in the United States saw a 17% decline in hospital-acquired conditions between 2010 and 2013 due to a marked improvement in patient safety, saving an estimated 50,000 lives and billions of dollars, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a report released Tuesday.

In the three-year period, there were 1.3 million fewer “patient harms,” the report found, and $12 billion was saved in health spending as a result of fewer mistakes. Hospital errors can cause patients to contract infections or experience adverse drug effects, among other preventable medical problems.

The department partly attributed the improvement in hospital safety to provisions in federal law, such as the Affordable Care Act, which provides financial incentives for doctors to reduce hospital-acquired infections. The mistakes have especially been under policymakers’ scrutiny since the Institute of Medicine published a 1999 report that claimed up to 98,000 people died annually as a result of medical errors in American hospitals.

Speaking at the CMS Healthcare Quality Conference, HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell called the drop “a big deal” but added that “it’s only a start.”

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