What if I told you that preventable medical errors were the third-leading cause of death in America -- behind only heart disease and cancer? That sobering statistic comes directly from a recent study published by the Journal of Patient Safety, which concludes that "the true number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients was estimated at more than 400,000 per year." Take a moment to allow that statistic to sink in while noting that the study is not discussing just the number of deaths, or the number of deaths from medical errors that could not have been avoided. The study is talking only about preventable medical errors. Said another way, preventable medical errors account for "roughly one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the United States each year."
As dispiriting as those statistics are, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the study was that getting a true grasp on the epidemic levels of malpractice was made difficult by what the author referred to as the "Wall of Silence" in the medical community. As the study stated in the starkest terms: "A recent national survey showed that physicians often refuse to report a serious adverse event to anyone in authority. In the case of cardiologists, the highest nonreporting group of the specialties studied, nearly two-thirds of the respondents admitted that they had recently refused to report at least one serious medical error, of which they had first-hand knowledge, to anyone in authority." Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that not only are medical errors out of control, the fact that so many doctors don't tell the truth about what is going on in our hospitals makes it difficult for us to identify the problems and fix them.
If physicians and hospitals refuse to confront the issues facing them, what can we do? Ideally, the civil justice system would help us hold healthcare providers accountable for their errors. The rules applicable to civil cases would allow patients and their families who have been harmed by medical malpractice to discover the true nature and extent of what happened in a given situation and to seek justice in a public forum for their harms and losses. Unfortunately, however, a wide array of special privileges has been erected by the powerful insurance and medical industry that makes it hard for many families to seek justice.
Something needs to be done to protect people in our hospitals. As another study published in Health Affairs estimated, one-third of hospital patients are victims of medical malpractice each year. I believe that we need to call on our health care institutions to honestly and seriously confront the dangers of medical malpractice within their walls. A good first step in the process would be to focus on accountability, transparency, and honesty when things do go wrong. I know from my experience representing families of those hurt or killed by medical errors that many of our issues could be addressed if hospitals and doctors were simply honest with their patients when it came to admitting a mistake. We should also think long and hard about whether the special protections our laws give to doctors and hospitals are really accomplishing a legitimate purpose instead of contributing to a significant and widespread danger that not only fails to protect patients, but keeps all of us from ever knowing the truth about the extent of a grave problem.