As members of Congress return to their districts to discuss healthcare reform with their constituents, Hearst Newspapers has published a major analysis of medical errors, highlighting their disturbing frequency and the lack of systemic reforms undertaken to secure patient safety. Ten years after the release of “To Err is Human,” a report detailing the pervasiveness of errors in the medical system and calling on the healthcare community to cut their incidence in half, Hearst writes that “federal analysts believe the rate of medical error[s] is actually increasing.”
Hearst found that “the medical community, the federal government and most states have overwhelmingly failed to take the effective steps outlined in the [‘To Err is Human’] report” and that “consequently, over that period, as many as 2 million Americans have died needlessly of preventable medical mistakes.” Some of the suggestions included in the report were as simple as color-coding medical tubes to avoid confusion, but few hospitals have adopted them.
According to Hearst’s research, a lack of transparency and prevalence secrecy surrounding medical errors makes it difficult to accurately track the number of deaths resulting from these mistakes, but it is clear that “if medical errors and infections were better tracked, they would easily top the list. In fact, a visit to your doctor or a hospital is twice as likely to result in your death [than] a drive on America’s highways.”
“To Err is Human” outlined several ways that the healthcare community could implement reforms that would improve patient safety, but very few facilities or government agencies have adopted them. Hearst writes that the report:
• Encouraged states to require medical error reporting. Only 20 states plus the District of Columbia have done so, and evidence shows that even in those mandatory-reporting states, hospitals report only a tiny percentage of their mistakes.
• Said the public ‘has the right to be informed about unsafe conditions.’ But 45 states plus the District of Columbia don’t provide hospital-specific information, either because they don’t allow access or because they don’t collect the data.
• Recommended the creation of a national patient safety center. The center is underfunded and has fallen far short of expectations.
• Urged that hospitals improve the level of safety within their walls. Hundreds of hospitals responded, a few of them comprehensively pursuing safer care. Thousands did much less.
• Advocated a voluntary system for hospitals to report and learn from errors. Five years later, Congress approved legislation for ‘patient safety organizations’ to serve this role, [and] then took four more years to create rules to govern them. But the new organizations are devoid of meaningful oversight and further exclude the public.
As the debate around healthcare continues to rage, patient safety must be front and center. Corporate interests suggest that tort reform is needed to cut costs, arguing that fear of lawsuits forces doctors to practice “defensive medicine,” ordering more tests than a patient requires. But these arguments are flimsy at best. There is no evidence that doctors order large numbers of unnecessary tests and as this report demonstrates, medical errors themselves, add huge costs to the system.
For patients harmed by negligence, the civil justice system is often their only recourse. Thousands of people’s lives are destroyed by medical errors, placing a huge financial burden on the survivors. Reforming the system to decrease these errors would not only save huge sums of money, it would also dramatically decrease the need for medical negligence lawsuits. Limiting patients’ legal rights does nothing but leave millions of Americans defenseless in a system that claims tens of thousands of lives each year.