Despite landmark study, medical errors plague American health care system

In 1999, a national panel of medical experts published "To Err Is Human," an extensive study of medical errors that occur in United States health care facilities. It found that 100,000 Americans die every year from preventable medical errors. Unfortunately, these errors continue to occur, despite over a decade passing since the landmark study.

New York boy dies as a result of preventable medical error

The importance of reducing medical negligence is evident in the stories of patients who have been injured or have died as a result of a preventable medical error. For example, this spring a 12-year-old boy died from septic shock after being released from New York University's Langone Medical Center's emergency ward. The ER failed to notify the boy's physician and parents that his lab results revealed a serious infection. The boy was sent home instead of being treated, losing his life to a preventable error.

After the death, the hospital promised changes to its lab result notification system, including immediately notifying ER doctors of their patients' abnormal lab results, or the patient's family if the patient was discharged before the results are complete. However, hospitals have been historically sluggish in adopting these types of reforms, as three preventable errors at Brown University's teaching hospital illustrate.

In 2007, at Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University's primary teaching hospital, surgeons drilled into the wrong side of patients' skulls three separate times. The second time the error occurred, the state's health department required the hospital to hire a safety consultant and to double-check surgical sites with patients prior to operating. The third time surgeons committed the error, the health department fined the hospital $50,000.

These types of errors are called wrong-site errors and are one of the more serious, yet preventable, types of surgical errors. Wrong-site errors are committed when a surgeon or other physician operates or treats the wrong site on a patient, for example, removing a healthy kidney while a diseased one remains in the patient. Wrong-site and other errors are usually attributed to inadequate training, physicians taking shortcuts and miscommunication between members of a patient's medical team.

Hospitals slow to adopt solutions

Unfortunately, hospitals and other health care facilities have been slow to adopt procedures and reforms to reduce the number of medical errors that doctors and other medical care providers commit. Alarmingly, in 2002 only five percent of physicians believed that medical errors were a top safety concern.

Sometimes, health care administrators draft fixes only to never implement them or have them largely ignored by staff. For example, less than three percent of hospitals have implemented electronic drug ordering systems, which can reduce medication errors by a whopping 86 percent.

Questions that hospitals should ask to improve patient safety

In order to reduce medical errors and improve patient safety, hospital administrators and physicians should consider a number of questions regarding error reporting. For example, should error reporting be mandatory or voluntary? Should reports be confidential or made public? Who would review the reports and how would the errors be addressed? Finally, how would near-miss events, in which serious errors are caught before they are made, be addressed in an error reporting program?

Coming up with solutions to these questions would improve patient care and safety. Until hospitals address the serious issue of medical errors, however, patients will continue to be injured or killed by preventable mistakes. If you or a loved one has been injured or killed by a doctor's error, please contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer.

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