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CMS Reverses Decision to Stop Publicly Reporting Medical Errors

Medical errors are made every day. We, as members of the public, rely on government agencies to provide us with information about what sort of errors are happening, where they are happening, and under what conditions they happen. There is no reliable way for one private individual to gather that information, and without it it would be impossible to determine the safety of our healthcare system. Medical malpractice claims would provide some information, but not every case of medical error results in a malpractice suit. Fortunately, one government agency recently released a prior decision to quit publicly reporting this sort of information.

The Oshkosh Northwestern reported the reversal earlier this month. According to its report, originally the Hospital Compare website reported on how often “hospital-acquired conditions” occurred at U.S. hospitals. Then it stopped reporting on medical errors despite making assurances in 2013 that it would not discontinue the public reporting. USA Today reports that, during the period of non-reporting, the agency was not publicly releasing data about medical mistakes as horrifying as doctors leaving instruments inside patients or giving them the wrong type of blood. Now the agency is again reversing course and making more information publicly available.

How the Removal Happened

Originally, the data about these conditions was only removed from CMS’ hospital comparison site. There was still a spreadsheet available that could be accessed by researchers, patient advocates, and the small number of consumers who could translate the document. But then last month even that information disappeared. Now the data will be made publicly available again, but it will not happen until later this year.

Hospitals Opposed Consumers Having Data

Consumers of both goods and services need data in order to make reasoned decisions. Healthcare consumers in particular have a very difficult job making choices when it comes to hospitals and medical providers (1) because they often do not have a lot of choice and (2) because even when they do have choice, they usually have very little information on which to base their choices. However, hospitals opposed consumers getting this information from CMS. Hospital officials argued that incidents like those where foreign objects are left in bodies are so rare that information about those incidents is “unreliable.” So in other words, hospitals do not want prospective patients to know when an item has been left in a human being, because it does not happen very often. That is shocking reasoning. An item being left inside a patient is what is called a never-event-it is one of those things that should never happen. When it does happen, it certainly indicates that something has gone seriously wrong at a facility, and prospective patients should have that information when making healthcare decisions.

USA Today reports that items are left inside patients up to 6,000 times a year. Those patients can suffer long-term consequences. If CMS can provide patients with information about where these sorts of inexcusable mistakes are happening, then in the interest of public safety that is what CMS should do.

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