October 2013 WAJ President's Column

Accountability for Medical Errors

By Jeff Pitman, WAJ President

According to a new study in the Journal of Patient Safety, between 210,000 and 440,000 people die each year because of preventable medical errors, making it the third leading cause of death in the U.S., beating out deaths caused by accidents, strokes and diabetes.

These alarming statistics should be a call to action, but instead Wisconsin passed legislation in 2011 that makes it more difficult for people to get the information from hospitals and nursing homes when preventable injuries and death occur.  Claiming the “incident reports” are privileged, patients and family members are prevented from obtaining the very facts about how and why the injury or death occurred.  Leaving patients and families in the dark and with no answers.

More recently, the Assembly passed legislation to change Wisconsin’s informed consent law from a patient-centered one – what a reasonable patient would want to know – to one where Wisconsin would stand alone and be the only state to have a standard that a physician may withhold information on treatment options if the physician doesn't believe the patient has a specific medical condition.  A doctor knows best standard.

Finally, the Legislature is considering precluding injured patients from using the statements of health care providers if they admit fault, liability or responsibility.  So if the surgeon admits that he made a mistake, it could not be admitted into evidence at trial.  No other profession would be protected, only health care providers.  The truth would be kept from the jury.

This legislative response is exactly the wrong response. The higher number of deaths is staggering.  Imagine if everyone in the city of Madison died in one year (233,209), with the entire population of Brown County dying the next year (248,007).  Or if everyone in Waukesha County (389,891) was wiped out in one year.*  That is the scope of the preventable medical error problem.

The people dying of preventable medical errors are not dying from the illnesses that caused them to seek medical care. They are dying from errors that hospitals should have prevented. Errors like a doctor operating on the wrong side of the brain, removing the wrong limb or leaving a medical instrument inside the body after surgery.  There are other horrific errors like a doctor piercing an aorta when inserting a pacemaker causing death, or a surgeon puncturing the abdominal aorta in a 13-old-year girl during an appendectomy leading to massive bleeding and death, or two women dying because their pap smears were misread by a laboratory where the screeners were paid by each slide reviewed. Experts in the cases agreed, the screener probably never even looked at the slides. 

Rather than penalize injured patients and their families, Wisconsin citizens should demand action that empowers patients and prevents medical errors – the third leading cause of death in the U.S.  Stop the legislation that rewards the health care providers that are causing these preventable medical errors and ignores patient safety.

* 2010 Census Data.

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