One of the most disappointing aspects of the misguided push for “tort reform” is the distorting effect is has on discussions of medical errors. Instead of talking about the amount of community members affected by preventable negligence, public discourse on the topic focuses almost exclusively on taking away legal rights of those hurt. Each Chicago medical malpractice lawyer at our firm appreciates that this skewed dialogue is reflected in the efforts-or lack of efforts-targeted at the actual problem of medical negligence.
Thirteen years ago the landmark study “Do No Harm” shocked many with the finding that as many as 98,000 patient die every year because of preventable medical errors. The report, from the Institute of Medicine, caused an uproar at the time. However, in the years since, it has become clear that those original estimates are actually low. How much have we advanced in patient safety efforts since that time? According to many observers, not much.
Kaiser Health published a story last week and offered an analysis into the way that federal patient safety efforts may not be doing nearly enough to keep patients safe. The particular federal patient safety effort in question related to the “hospital engagement network (HEN). This is a new Medicare-led program that has been charged with the ambitious goal of preventing 60,000 deaths and 1.8 million injuries over a three year period. There are currently twenty six different HENs, each working to jointly reach those goals by minimizing “hospital acquired conditions”-which are fancy ways of saying medical malpractice.
Those high numbers and an expected cost of $218 million may suggest that federal officials are finally getting serious about fixing this problem. But, some involved parties want to remind the public that even if those ambitious goals are met, this represents less than half of documented cases of patient harm.
The main thrust of the HEN program-and what makes it better than previous efforts-is that it focuses much more on bottom line accountability. One of the program’s co-directors explained that “this is a full court press unlike anything I’ve seen in my ten years in government.” What she means is that never before have there been as many resources put into the effort and as much accountability mechanisms built in. It will be harder for involved medical facilities to use creative explanations of errors or other claims to excuse failure to meet goals. Our Illinois medical malpractice attorneys appreciate the importance of this accountability.
However, as the results of the HEN programs come in, it will be important to keep reminding those involved about the relative modesty of the program goals. In fact, a wide range of groups-from Consumers Advancing Patient Safety to Mothers Against Medical Errors-believe that the targets are too low. In addition, these groups remind advocates that simply withholding certain federal dollars alone is likely not enough to tackle the full scope of this problem. Patients and their families need to retain the strong incentive to hold facilities accountable in individual cases of mistreatment for the vast harm caused.
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