When I first heard about the Rhode Island Hospital medical error fiasco, my first inclination was to write a blog about it. I decided, instead, to see what others would write about and add my two cents afterward. To my surprise, while many of my legal industry brothers and sisters wrote about the situation, few used it as an example of why tort reform is such a bad idea for America and why it has no business being discussed as part of the health care reform debate.
Rhode Island Hospital is a "three strikes and you’re fined" story. I am certain that anyone reading this is aware, by now, that three different brain surgeons operated on the wrong parts of the heads of three different patients. At Rhode Island Hospital, the state’s most prestigious medical center and a teaching hospital for the Ivy League’s Brown University, all three mistakes happened in less than one year. And, a fourth case involved a surgeon who operated on the wrong side of a patient with a cleft palate. How can a surgeon miss something as obvious as a cleft palate?
The final straw came on October 22, when another wrong-site procedure took place. A patient was having elective surgery on two different fingers of the right hand; remarkably, both procedures were performed not only on the same hand, but on the same finger. How could this happen?
State Health Director David R. Gifford had this to say:
“This pattern of surgical errors is completely unacceptable and must be corrected to protect the safety of all patients at the hospital.”
Equally alarming is that the surgeons involved in these errors are (or were) highly regarded. I guess that the important point here is that even the most well trained doctor, one who has done the same or similar procedure hundreds of times, needs to follow protocol. Surgeons are required to follow a three-step process called the "Universal Protocol" to ensure they are about to do the correct operation, usually via a checklist. Apparently, protocol is loosely followed, if at all, at Rhode Island Hospital.
Fortunately, none of these wrong-site surgeries resulted in fatalities. The Hospital has been slapped with a $150,000 fine, required to install video cameras in all its operating rooms, and must assign a clinician, not part of the surgical team, to observe all surgeries at the hospital, for a period of not less than one year. The hospital will, apparently, use video of these procedures as a monitor and training tool.
Will these measures work? They might decrease mistakes and increase safety in the operating room, but given the hospital’s recent track record, slapping the perpetrators with a fine and making them “promise” to follow safety protocol does not seem adequate to this observer. One important question not being answered is: "How do these measures assist the victims?"
The hospital must also conduct a mandatory training and review of the uniform surgical procedures with all surgical staff, and implement the safety checklist. Obviously, these critical safety procedures were not being used or were being misused. What happened to patient care and safety? How would you, as a juror in these victims’ cases, handle these medical mistakes and victims’ compensation? Would it anger you to find out that your verdict was thrown out in favor of a lower damage cap? Where is adequate punishment? Where is justice? Again, what about the victims?
These questions lead me to the ultimate question I repeatedly ask in many of my posts: Why do congressional conservatives and the citizens who support these politicians seek to punish the victims of medical error rather than the perpetrators? Tort Reform, a fancy name for placing a damage cap on serious verdicts for serious injuries or fatalities at unreasonably low numbers, will do nothing to improve safety in the operating room. It will further encourage those responsible for committing medical errors to be less responsible. Why? Because there will be little or no consequence for mistakes made. Insurance companies will get a financial windfall and the public sector, in the form of increased taxes for assuming the burden of the wrongdoers, will take the financial hit. Is that what fiscal conservatives stand for? They do if their hands are in the pockets of insurance companies and big pharmaceutical companies. While insurance companies receive a “get out of trouble” free card, the taxpayers get the bill. Is this what the American people want? Another question is "Why is this what conservative Americans want"?
The Rhode Island Hospital debacle should be a wake-up call to all who favor placing damage caps and other anti-justice restrictions on patients and their loved ones as they seek to recover full and fair compensation for injuries and losses caused by negligent medical and hospital personnel. Hospitals and doctors must be held fully accountable for inadequate care. This is the only way to reduce the numbers and severities of incidents like Rhode Island. It is time we address the real problem–preventable medical errors. The easiest way to reduce the cost of medical malpractice is to prevent or reduce the incidents of medical errors; the system will not repair itself by punishing the victim a second time. America: Stop blaming the victims; hopefully the situation at Rhode Island Hospital has sent this loud and clear message to Congress as they continue to ponder changes in our health care system.
Lawsuit Financial is a pro-justice lawsuit funding company providing cash flow solutions and litigation funding to plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit. If you or a loved one is involved in a lawsuit and have trouble meeting your financial obligations, consider contacting a pro-justice, attorney-owned and operated, lawsuit funding company. And, every chance you get, stand up for the rights of injury victims in America. After all, couldn’t something like Rhode Island happen to anyone? Couldn’t it happen to you?
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.