Medical Errors

Medical care in the US is expensive, not only in terms of money, but also in terms of human life. We do not know for sure how many people are killed each year by preventable medical errors, but the estimates are frightening.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published an estimate that 98,000 people are killed each year by preventable medical errors in the US. In a 2008 study, HealthGrades, an independent rater of health care doctors and institutions, found that it was likely more than 238,000 Medicare patients had died as a result of medical errors from 2004 to 2006, about 80,000 a year.

In its own study of preventable medical errors, Medicare estimated that up to 15,000 patients a month died at least partly as a result of medical errors. That translates to 180,000 patients a year killed by medical errors, 44% of which were considered preventable. In other words, about 80,000 preventable deaths a year due to medical errors. It also estimated that preventable medical errors contributed to more than 700,000 serious injuries a year.

Medical malpractice lawsuits target doctors and hospitals whose medical errors cause death or injury. However, instead of trying to prevent medical errors, doctors and their insurance companies have lobbied to remove the right of victims to get compensation.

How Hospitals and Doctors Can Prevent Errors

There have been many experiments that show how doctors can reduce medical errors by simply improving some of the procedures they follow in their practice. Perhaps one of the most important comes from the New York Weill Center of Obstetrics and Gynecology. OB/GYNs are often targeted by lawsuits when their medical errors result in serious and often permanent injury to a child. The Weill Center demonstrating that implementing certain reforms dramatically reduced their incidence of errors resulting in patient injury and therefore their payments in medical malpractice lawsuits. The Weill Center implemented numerous reforms including:

  • Additional safety training
  • Safety drills
  • Clarified communication lines
  • A nurse dedicated to patient safety concerns
  • Laborists who helped deliver babies at night and on weekends
  • Electronic records
  • Limitations of the use of dangerous medications
  • Pre-mixed and color-coded dilutions of medications

As a result, the Weill Center saw serious patient injuries (sentinel events) decrease from 5 in 2000 to 0 in both 2008 and 2009. In financial terms, their payments for medical errors dropped from $50 million in 2003, before they instituted reforms, to $250,000 in 2009, a reduction of 99.5%!

In a more general sense, HealthGrades estimates that if all hospitals followed the practices of the safest hospitals, patient injury due to medical errors could be reduced by 43% overall, which it says would save more than 10,000 lives a year.

Instead of Protecting Patients, Doctors Protect Themselves

When talking about this issue, doctors don’t refer to improving patient care so much as they refer to tort reform.

When doctors talk about tort reform, it’s clear what they mean. They want to reduce their costs and increase their take-home pay. When you look at what they consider success stories, the measure of that success is fiscal. In an article entitled “AMA Analysis Confirms: Tort Reforms Work,” the findings of the story make it clear what this means to doctors (and insurance companies): “The summary . . . found that recent research — consistent with earlier studies — revealed that noneconomic damage caps continue to reduce insurers’ claims payouts, which translates to lower rates for doctors.” The study does not look at patient injuries, or how the tort reforms affected compensation for those victims.

The only reference the article makes to patients at all is to claim that tort reform improves access to doctors, but this seems to be at best misleading. The AMA praises tort reform states like California and Texas, and said “patient care remained in jeopardy” in Florida. In fact, though, according to US census reports, the doctors per capita in Florida is exactly in the median for the US: 247.9 per 100,000 population in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available, and the same year the AMA report focuses on. In contrast, California had 268.7 physicians per 100,000 residents (17th) and Texas had 214.2 (41st). And if we look at commonly cited “judicial hellholes,” we find that their doctor supply is, average to exceptional:

  • West Virginia 232.1 (32)
  • Illinois 280.2 (11)
  • New York 395.9 (3)
  • Maryland 421.4 (2)

Clearly, patients are not really having their access to health care threatened.

Unfortunately, though, when doctors work to protect themselves by reducing your right to receive compensation for injuries, it is the insurance companies that profit, which isn’t really that surprising, because it is the insurance industry that has bankrolled many of these efforts to reduce your access to justice.

Don’t let the insurance industry continue to hide behind doctors and make false threats about your access to health care being tied to the medical malpractice climate. Join the fight today to protect your right to a jury trial.