Medical Errors, How Prevalent is the Problem?

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study published last year by physicians at Johns Hopkins University Hospital found that more than 250,000 deaths occur each year due to medical errors. That is 700 patient deaths each and every day. This establishes death by medical malpractice as the third leading cause of death in America, behind only heart disease and cancer. This statistic does not include patients who are unnecessarily harmed by medical errors and left incapacitated to one degree or another – patients who all too often require expensive, ongoing medical treatment in an effort to piece their lives back together, or sometimes even to survive. Thus, the staggering cost both in human carnage and medical care necessitated because of medical errors is a major driver of the overall cost of healthcare in America.

Who is Committing these Errors?

Since the early 1990s, the federal government has collected data on medical errors through its National Practitioner’s Data Base (NPDB). Since that time, any medical malpractice insurance company that pays any money to settle a claim, or satisfy a verdict, against a physician must report that fact to the NPDB. Unfortunately, the data in this databank is not accessible by the general public – only to hospitals and medical malpractice insurers.

In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Patient Safety, data from NPDB compiled over the past 25 years indicates that one-quarter of all claims were paid on behalf of 6521 doctors – 0.5% of all physicians. Roughly half of all medical malpractice claims were paid by 22,511 physicians, 18% of all physicians. A similar study by researchers at Stanford University came up with a similar conclusion – 1% of all doctors were responsible for 32% of all medical malpractice claims paid over a ten-year period.

Policing the “Frequent Flyers”

According to the NPDB report, of the 18% of all physicians who had been responsible for roughly half of all medical malpractice claims, only 12.6% had any type of adverse licensure action taken against them by state licensing boards. Even more perplexing, only 6.3% had their clinical privileges reduced or revoked by the hospital at which the medical error had occurred.

Attacking the Malpractice Epidemic – The Current Climate

The Hon. Thomas Price, currently the Secretary of Health and Human Services, has long advocated that “lawsuit abuse” and defensive medicine are major drivers of healthcare costs. Price, a retired orthopedic surgeon, has long supported “tort reform” to reduce the requirement that malpractice insurance carriers or hospitals must report payments to the federal government, and to make it more difficult for injured patients to prove their claims in court. Not only does this approach fail to address the underlying Elephant in the Room – protecting patients from unsafe care delivered by these “frequent flyer” physicians, is actually counterproductive to the one and only institution that is been effective in holding these doctors responsible for their errors – namely, the American Jury System.

The Jury’s Role

The Government has been ineffective in protecting innocent patients. So, too, have hospitals failed to weed out physicians with questionable track records.

Only the American jury has stood up for the victims of medical malpractice. The County court room is the one place in America where all stand equal in the eyes of the law. Just as no injured patient deserves to win any verdict in a frivolous case, so too must juries hold doctors and nurses responsible for their errors by enforcing medical standards that protect all patients from malpractice abuse. The jury’s role in protecting patients from the scourge of malpractice abuse is the juries’ duty, and solemn responsibility. Without juries, the policing of “frequent flyers” is left to the physicians themselves, a system proven ineffective by these medical reports. Only the jury can protect themselves and their community by holding responsible those doctors and nurses who commit malpractice.