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In 1999, a study by the Institute of Medicine found that as many as 98,000 Americans are killed by medical errors—most of them preventable—each year. In 2000, the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated the number to be closer to 250,000, counting deaths resulting from unnecessary surgery, hospital-acquired infections, and other cases of harmful medical practice.

To put these numbers in perspective,

…the death toll from medical errors in U.S. hospitals is equivalent to three jumbo jets falling out of the sky and killing all the passengers on board every forty-eight hours. But even the most egregious errors go largely unreported, and when they are reported, they are often buried and ignored. For the most part, all the public gets to hear about are industry-wide estimates and statistical averages of the kind presented above. Because we lack specific knowledge of where these injuries are occurring and under what circumstances, we can’t know precisely what to do about the ongoing catastrophe or whom to reward when specific solutions are found. –Washington Monthly

If every 48 hours, three jumbo jets crashed and killed everyone onboard, the public outcry would be immediate, powerful and impossible to ignore…and the problem would quickly be addressed and remedied. And while it might seem somewhat easier to fix safety issues within the relatively self-contained airline industry than the sprawling, gargantuan health care industry, there are some straightforward and easy steps that could be taken to make huge improvements in health care safety.

One of these steps, as surgeon Atul Gawande has pointed out, is to institute the use of simple checklists during surgery.

"We brought a two-minute checklist into operating rooms in eight hospitals," Gawande says. "I worked with a team of folks that included Boeing to show us how they do it, and we just made sure that the checklist had some basic things: Make sure that blood is available, antibiotics are there."

How did it work?

"We get better results," he says. "Massively better results.

"We caught basic mistakes and some of that stupid stuff," Gawande reports. But the study returned some surprising results: "We also found that good teamwork required certain things that we missed very frequently."

Like making sure everyone in the operating room knows each other by name. When introductions were made before a surgery, Gawande says, the average number of complications and deaths dipped by 35 percent. –NPR

With success rates this high, why are so many legislators pushing for damage caps and tort reform that will only limit the compensation patients can receive once they’re already injured? Why are they looking to solve the health care crisis with reforms to the legal system? Does it matter to them that damage caps won’t prevent a single person from being injured or killed by medical errors?

Instead of making legal changes that will only benefit insurance companies and big business, let’s push to make our hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities legitimately safer, by instituting simple safety protocols, greater transparency, and more effective error reporting.

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