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Yet Another Study on Underreporting of Hospital Errors

Chicago medical malpractice occurs much more than most residents know. Unfortunately, when local residents hear the words “medical malpractice” their minds almost always jump to tort reform issues. The words seem to inspire some notions of rising insurance costs, political battles, and runaway juries. These visceral responses are unfortunate because they distort the fact that medical malpractice should first and foremost be able to victims who have suffered preventable harm.

It is the underestimation of errors that allows the preventative role played by medical malpractice lawsuits to be forgotten in these debates about the effect of tort reform legislation. The fact remains that tens of thousands of people die each and every year because mistakes were made in their care which should have been prevented. Some estimates place the yearly death total at 90,000, with many more suffering severe injury. The accountability system, with medical malpractice suits at the center, play a pivotal role in spurring safety changes and keeping safety standards at all these locations high.

To make matters worse, evidence continues to pour in confirming that the total numbers of medical errors are likely much higher than reported. An ABC News story last week discussed the underreporting of mistakes made by those working in hospitals and medical facilities. The article explains how a new report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that more than 80% of hospital errors are actually never reported. Perhaps even worse, the same study found that even when problems were documented, little if anything was done at those facilities to prevent a repeat of the problem.

A wide range of errors were documents in the HHS study. They included many that our Chicago medical malpractice attorneys see time and again like patients receiving the wrong medication, the development of bedsores, and hospital acquired infections. Those involved explain how Medicare requires tracking of the records, but there is little accountability to ensure that the tracking is done properly. Inspectors are known to only loosing monitor this tracking information. On top of that there is often misunderstanding about what counts as a medical error and when something should be included in the data.

The study was conducted differently than many others in that it first identified 300 patients who had been harmed by a medical error. They then traced the records of those patients back to hospitals to determine whether those errors were properly documented. As one might expect when self-reporting is involved, few hospitals actually documented the situation. In 61% of the cases the involved doctors said that they did not count the adverse event as an error. Another 25% included cases that were unquestionably errors but for whatever reason were not recorded.

Interestingly, the most serious cases of medical mistakes-like hospital acquired infections or other problems leading to death-were no more likely to be reported. It seems that the problem, therefore, is not about misunderstanding of definitions, but out and out failure to properly document problems. This latest study echoes results found in efforts from earlier in the year which found that as many as 90% of medical errors are currently undetected by hospital systems.

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