Keep Our Families SafeIn the Med Mal Debate, Don’t Forget Medical Errors

In the debate over how to reduce the cost of medical malpractice insurance for doctors, President Bush and Congress are ignoring an obvious and effective solution: The best way to reduce medical malpractice lawsuits is to reduce medical malpractice in the first place.
Lately we’ve been hearing a lot of numbers about the costs of lawsuits, but here are some other numbers to keep in mind. As many as 98,000 Americans die every year from preventable medical errors, more than are killed by highway accidents, breast cancer or AIDS, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences reports. 
So before we rush to pass so-called “tort reform” that will limit the rights of all Americans in the courtroom, we should first examine how patient safety reform and greater openness in the medical profession might result in fewer medical errors and fewer lawsuits.
First, to improve patient safety we should improve nursing staffing, and reduce the shortage of qualified nurses that has a demonstrably harmful effect on the care hospital patients receive. The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars to research cures for disease but less than $5 million to prevent deaths from medical errors. That needs to change. And Congress needs to finally pass a real Patients Bill of Rights, to put medical decisions back into the hands of doctors, nurses and patients, not HMO bureaucrats.
Another important part of the solution is full disclosure of medical errors when they occur.
Few hospitals, doctors, or pharmacists volunteer information about their records on medical mistakes. Most states have laws – called “peer review privilege” statutes – that allow medical professionals to keep information about the medical mistakes they’ve made a secret from the patients they’ve injured.
Some in the health care system argue that these laws are necessary, because if patients knew about the medical errors that injured them, they would sue.
Patients deserve to be told of medical errors that affect their health. Not only would it ensure prompt and appropriate treatment to correct the error in treatment and save lives, but the experience of a Veterans Affairs hospital in Kentucky shows that hospitals and insurance companies shouldn’t necessarily fear additional legal costs.
A study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine tells how the staff of the hospital decided that instead of trying to hide mistakes from patients, they would promptly and fully disclose all errors. Instead of fighting patients when it erred, the hospital offered fair compensation to them – and even helped file claims. 
The hospital adopted the policy out of a moral and ethical duty to be honest with its patients. But it had an unanticipated side effect – it greatly reduced the amount of money the hospital had to pay to litigate claims of medical malpractice.
When the hospital was honest with its patients, those patients were less likely to take their claims to court. The study concluded that because the hospital’s staff was honest about its errors, the patients felt no betrayal of trust, and the hospital and the patients didn’t become adversaries.
Insurance company and HMO executives, as well as many in Washington, will tell you the problem with the medical malpractice system is all the lawsuits filed by patients injured through no fault of their own and their lawyers. But in the face of the huge number of deaths due to medical errors, and the experience of the hospital in Kentucky, it’s time we asked some simple questions.
Don’t patients deserve the truth about their health and common-sense reform to make hospitals safer? Shouldn’t we first do everything we can to eradicate preventable medical errors and provide a degree of openness regarding doctors and their mistakes and only then debate whether to drastically restrict the rights of those Americans killed or maimed by medical negligence?
In the discussion about medical malpractice, every American concerned for the safety and well-being of his family should hold our elected officials accountable for the answers.