When a healthcare worker makes a mistake, patients can suffer severe consequences. A 2016 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University identified medical malpractice as the third leading cause of death in the United States, surpassed only by heart disease and cancer. While it is clear that changes must be made to our healthcare system to protect patients, even physicians are not sure where to start.
Before they agree on solutions, experts must agree on the severity of the problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks trends in cause of death based on International Code of Disease (ICD) codes. But there is no code for human or system error. It is up to practitioners to document medical errors that occur, and often these details do not make it onto a patient’s chart.
The Johns Hopkins team reached their conclusion by examining data from an eight-year period, which revealed 251,454 fatalities caused by medical error each year. Other recent studies have put that number between 130,000 and 575,000 – a large margin of error. If the Johns Hopkins estimate is correct, this group represents more than one third of the 700,000 deaths that occur among hospitalized patients each year, which is deeply concerning.
To accurately report the number of fatalities caused by medical malpractice, we must be able to determine whether medical malpractice was actually the cause of death. In cases involving a car accident or a drug overdose, the cause of death is fairly straightforward. But for patients who are already seriously ill, their death could be the result of their disease, old age, or some other factor entirely. It could also be caused by a combination of factors that includes medical error, making it difficult to categorize. Between 10 and 30 percent of autopsies reveal a misdiagnosis; this alone indicates that medical errors are severely underestimated among patients who are very sick.
The need for interventions to protect patients has led to the development of organizations such as Patient Safety America, founded by a Texas man whose son died after receiving incorrect discharge information from his hospital. One important change, he says, is for doctors to think of patients as part of the care team and take the time to get to know them. He believes that if his son’s doctors had known more about his lifestyle, including his athletic pursuits and his diet, he would have gotten a more accurate diagnosis that could have saved his life.
Improving communication between doctors and patients is crucial to achieving better patient outcomes; just as important is improving communication between members of the care team, including nurses and techs. Issues with electronic health record systems can cause vital information to fall through the cracks, and healthcare workers are often too busy to catch these details.
Some advocates suggest change such as transitioning to a single-payer system would allow physicians to focus more on patient care than trying to maximize profits.
If you or a loved one has suffered harm due to a medical error, call the New Jersey medical malpractice lawyers at Eichen Crutchlow Zaslow, LLP. Our knowledgeable, experienced legal team will thoroughly review the facts of your case and hold those responsible for your suffering accountable. With offices conveniently located in Edison, Red Bank, and Toms River, we serve clients throughout New Jersey. Call us today at 732-777-0100 or contact us online for a free consultation.