New Medical Malpractice Rates Are Completely Unacceptable!

I am simply blown away by the new study regarding malpractice rates that was just published in the New England Journal of Medicine!  A six-year study in 10 North Carolina hospitals (published November 25, 2010 in the New England Journal of Medicine) has found that efforts to make hospitals safer for patients are falling short.  It “found that harm to patients was common and that the number of incidents did not decrease over time.  The most common problems were complications from procedures or drugs and hospital-acquired infections.”  This study has been billed as one of the most rigorous efforts to collect data about patient safety since a landmark report (“To Err is Human”) in 1999 found that medical mistakes cause as many as 98,000 deaths and more than one million injuries a year in the United States.

The study found 18% of patients, virtually 1 in 5, suffered at least one safety-related incident, ranging from minor injuries to life-threatening mistakes and 14 deaths.  This was in spite of the fact that North Carolina was chosen because the state is considered a leader in efforts to improve patient safety.  In other words, these statistics reflect the medical community’s best efforts to keep malpractice rates down.  This isn’t a study from the worst hospitals in America; this is a study that found that even among the most safety-conscious group of medical facilities, one in five patients suffered an act of malpractice.

The numbers are sobering enough, however it is also concerning that the rates did not decline over the course of the study.  “We need to find ways to much more consistently implement proven safety interventions across hospitals,” said Dr. Christopher Landrigan, a patient safety researcher at both Children’s Hospital Boston and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  “The current state of affairs, where there is erratic pursuit of one initiative by one hospital, another by another hospital, and insufficient adoption of the best-proven interventions has not gotten the patient safety movement very far.”

Landrigan proposes a variety of initiatives including a nationally coordinated system to help hospitals put proven safety measures to work, using surgical checklists, computerized prescription order entry, and electronic medical records.  However, not all the measures need to be high-tech.  In fact, one of the most effective ways to prevent hospital acquired infections is for doctors and nurses to wash their hands.  He also proposes limits on how long doctors and nurses can work without sleep.  Fatigue and sleep deprivation can lead to slowed reaction times and lapses in judgment both of which lead to errors in patient care.

Another recent government report found that medical mistakes could cost Medicare several billion dollars per year and that 13.5% of Medicare patients suffered adverse events.  So, medical malpractice doesn’t just impact the individual patient and their families, if impacts tax payers because, after all, Medicare is paid for by every one of us.  Therefore, medical malpractice costs everyone.

In addition to the obvious, what is so frustrating for me is that, from a legislative standpoint, every time the issue of medical malpractice comes up, it does so in the form of caps on damages that the victims of malpractice seek.  There is never an effort to mandate more efficient record keeping, increased reimbursement rates for providers so as to allow for more investment in additional staffing, or an increased investment in additional medical universities and nursing colleges.  Instead, we literally punish the victim.  For example, in Indiana there is a hard cap of $1.25 million on all damages suffered by a victim of medical malpractice or their family.  It doesn’t matter that the victim incurred $400,000 in related medical expenses, was the sole breadwinner for the family before he died, and left behind minor children.  All the family can recover is $1.25 million.

Other states have similar arbitrary caps on damages.  For example, in states like Texas or California, the value of the life of a child or an elderly person is capped at $250,000.  This is because their state legislators have placed an arbitrary cap of $250,000 on non-economic damages, which are sometime called “pain and suffering.”  The victim can recover additional economic damages for lost wages or medical expenses, but a child or a retired person doesn’t have an income.  This leaves the non-economic damages of $250,000 as the only thing recoverable against the negligent medical provider.

At the end of the day, the whole purpose of our Civil Justice System is to provide accountability for wrongdoing, and compensation to the victim.  Somehow, we as a society have continued to look the other way when it comes to medical malpractice and then blame the victim when faced with the reality that it occurs.   We can’t continue to do this.  If we extrapolate the findings of this study over the entire population of America, well over 100,000 people die every from preventable medical error and millions more suffer injury every single year.  In fact, if the Centers for Disease Control considered medical malpractice as a cause of death in its rankings, it would be the seventh leading cause of death in America.

So, when are we going to stop blaming the lawyers for “frivolous lawsuits” and start demanding accountability from medical providers?  I know my friends in the medical community want to do what’s right and believe in helping people, just as much as we do.  However, this won’t happen without pulling back the curtain and exposing the true scope of the problem.   I hope that this new study is the start of that very important conversation.


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