Medical errors are one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. each year. We typically hear about deaths caused by cancer, heart disease and auto collisions. The campaign to find a cure for cancer or heart disease is commendable, as is patient safety in the operation of motor vehicles. Safety rules to prevent serious injuries are in place and they work but they seem to either not apply to the medical field or they are not being enforced or followed uniformly. How much attention is placed on enforcing safety rules to minimize deaths caused by medical errors? It seems that whatever policies and procedures exist in the healthcare industry, they are not taken seriously or ignored until a death occurs and legal and financial consequences arise.
Instead the law now favors doctors apologizing for a bad outcome but at the same time, making sure that a patient can’t try to use that apology in the courtroom to prove fault. Can you imagine a driver saying I am sorry when a rear-end collision occurs and a death results, but not being able to use that admission in court when the driver claims he was not at fault?
Since 1999, medical errors have been on the radar of medical researchers. The number of people that die each year due to preventable medical errors continues to increase. It is truly unfortunate that physicians that commit medical errors frequently go unchallenged, unnoticed and unpunished until a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the culture of silence in the medical community is one of the leading reasons that the high number of potentially deadly medical errors continue to increase. The report surveyed physicians and found that more than half said that in the past year, they discovered a medical error made by a colleague. Unfortunately once discovered, many physicians do not feel the need to tell the patient or bring the error to the attention of another physician. Consequently, patients are often unaware of the mistake and the responsible physician goes unpunished.
As I have previously reported, reliable objective studies show that between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year experience some kind of preventable medical error that causes or substantially leads to death. This kind of safety record in any other industry would cause every American to demand change. Political leaders would be run out of Washington if safety measures and laws were not passed to keep Americans safe. Instead we continue to read about needless deaths due to a misdiagnosis or failure to timely diagnosis and nothing seems to take place to change the culture in society so that safety becomes our #1 goal.
Until everyone recognizes that: (1) a doctor should not needlessly endanger the lives of patients; and (2) when and if a doctor exposes a patient to an unreasonable risk of harm and (3) if an injury occurs he should be held accountable and responsible for all of the harms and losses, the tragic number of medical errors will continue to grow.