The Newsweek article published last week on patient safety provides helpful insight into the true scope of the problem of medical errors. The article is an excerpt from the author’s (a doctor) helpful book entitled: Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care.
The story reminds readers of a 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study which found that as many as one in four medical patients suffered some form of medical error as a result of their hospital stay–about 100,000 of those patients would die as a result of that error. While these basic statistics are often repeated, there is continued need to raise the alarm about the problem. That is because most political and policy talk focuses not on cutting back the staggeringly high number of deaths but cutting back the legal rights of those hurt. This unbalanced and inappropriate focus needs to be shifted.
Keeping Problem Doctors Hidden
Interestingly, while medical patients rarely understand the scope of the problem, medical professionals themselve are acutely aware of the risks of this sort of care. For example, the author conducted a study in 2006 asking hospital employees if they would feel comfortable receiving medical care in their own unit. Stunningly, more than half of the hospitals have a majority of workers say no. The same survey found that a majority of respondents at more than half of the hospitals also said that their hospital does not “give priority to what’s best for the patient.”
So while medical care workers themselves understand the problems with care, patients rarely find out. The article shares the story of a cardiovascular anesthesiologist who had a co-worker with various problems. The co-worker–a surgeon–had six patients die in a row when performing a routine heart procedure. Even when the patient did not die, the surgery often took hours longer than necessary and left patients in the same situation as before the surgery.
The author-doctor asked the anesthesiologist if he reported the problem surgeon. The anesthesiologist noted that there was no one to report to. The surgeon was well-liked in the hospital and made significant money for the facility. In other words, anytime someone raised questions about complications, the surgeon always received the benefit of the doubt.
Not only that, but in some cases, doctors who speak up and share concerns are let go by medical facilities. For example, one cardiologist sought to improve patient safety in her hospital by examining the interpretation of heart-echo tests. She found that nearly 30% of all of those test reading were inaccurate. She then listed various things that could be done to help improve accuracy. But, after releasing the study, the doctor was fired. Of course the facility argued that the firing was related to other things, but many obviously interpreted the release as a warning about criticizing the safety measures at a hospital.
There is no universal approach to solving the problem. However, it will obviously begin with ensuring consumers are as aware of potential medical errors as health care providers are themselves.
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