Accountability breeds improvement. That basic principle is true in almost all contexts, including patient safety. Each Chicago medical malpractice attorney at our firm helps clients for that reason–to ensure accountability for mistakes in the hope that improvements will ultimately be made to protect future patients. In the medical context, the accountability usually takes two forms: individual legal action by patients and their families, and public accountability from state and federal regulators. Both are needed. Unfortunately, administrative regulators are few and far between. Even then, when a public agency holds a facility accountable for some problems, the “penalty” is often so small as to have little effect.
Though it is still important to identify the role that regulators play in trying to eliminate medical malpractice and improve standards for all patients.
For example, a story from KTVU recently noted how fourteen hospitals were cited by state regulators for “non-compliance with licensing requirements.” The facilities were fined for a range of mistakes, each of which put patient’s health in jeopardy unnecessarily. One hospital was cited for not following proper surgical protocol, leaving a foreign object in a patient’s body. The patient had to undergo a second surgery to remove the object when it was discovered. Another facility did not follow state guidelines regarding self-administered bedside medications.
Encouragingly each facility apparently made immediate changes to protocols, training, and other procedures in an effort to prevent a repeat of the error. This spurring of improvement is obviously the goal of the citations. However, our Illinois medical malpractice attorneys know that claims about improvement and actual concrete steps which make patients safer are two different things. All facilities say that things will get better after an error, but not all facilities follow-up properly to actually ensure things are safer.
For all of the good that comes with these regulatory penalties, it is important to highlight their downsides. Most notably, these citations represent only a fraction of the actual medical errors that occur across the country every year. As we’ve often noted, medical errors kill over a hundred thousand patients every year–many more are injured. Most of those mistakes do not result in public citations. In most cases it is only the most egregious errors that draw the ire of regulators, including things like leaving surgical objects in the body after surgery.
In addition, the power to enact penalties which spur change is often minimal. For example, in this case the penalties ranged from $50,000 to $100,000. While that is a significant sum for individuals, it often means little to large hospital conglomerates. As a result, many facilities may deem it too insignificant to use proper resources to correct the problem. Comprehensive patient safety initiatives often require prolonged commitments in time and resources. Facilities must be spurred to invest those resources. Regulatory penalties are rarely enough to do so. Obviously facilities always claim that improvements will be made after an error is pointed out, but claims are not worthwhile unless they translate into actual safety improvements. For that reason each medical malpractice lawyer at our firm urges patients and their families to remain vigilant about the care they receive at all medical institutions.
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