Far too many people are dying in our hospitals. Yet, not always from the illness with which they were admitted. Fatal medical negligence – including falls, medication errors, abuse, and hospital-acquired infections – has now become so common that it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Hospitals’ failure to report errors has only escalated the problem. If medical facilities fail to meet stringent health and safety requirements, they lose their funding and risk closure. Clearly, these facilities will stop at nothing – not even fatalities – to avoid this.
Until now, we have only been able to estimate the number of deaths by preventable medical negligence, which currently stands at 1,000 Americans per day. But under revolutionary new regulations by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the public may now see an accurate number, which is likely much higher.
Lifting the Veil of Hospital Secrecy
CMS, the federal agency responsible for administering programs such as Medicaid and coordinating health standards, has just released a proposal to grant public access to confidential reports about medical errors. This regulation applies to private healthcare accreditors, whom many hospitals pay to conduct their inspections instead of the government.
These accrediting organizations oversee nearly 9 in 10 hospitals in the U.S. and, according to CMS, are overlooking an outrageous proportion of problems. In 1 review of accreditors’ findings, CMS themselves found 41 serious issues, 39 of which were missed.
The Joint Commission (the largest private accrediting organization in the nation), is particularly ignorant to problems. An independent report by the Chicago Tribune revealed that the organization approved “medical centers riddled by life-threatening problems and underreporting of patient deaths due to infections and hospital errors.”
By making information about these problems publicly available, the agency hopes to stop private accreditors from burying problems they find during hospital inspections. After all, patient safety advocates have been campaigning for this for years.
“The information that’s available now is so minimal,” said Lisa McGiffert from the Safe Patient Project, a patient safety organization, “and would not really inform anyone about real quality of a hospital.”
Could This Be Enough to Ensure Patient Safety?
Although reports from private accreditors are long overdue, CMS has made progress toward transparency. Several years back, the agency took steps to publish government inspection reports online through websites such as ProPublica and the Association of Health Care Journalists. These allow users to search for nursing home and hospital violations, respectively.
On the other hand, many private accreditors make only a slapdash attempt at providing public access to reports. The Joint Commission, for example, allows users to check hospitals’ accreditations, but rarely discloses specific wrongdoing.
This is simply not enough. It’s far too important for patients to know the details of what happens in hospitals, and public awareness of patient safety needs to improve.
Some studies have suggested that better communication among doctors could reduce complications. Even so, thorough reporting is a guaranteed and more easily regulated solution. Allowing patients to make informed choices about their care and emptying the wards of dangerous facilities may be the best way to prevent medical negligence for good.
“It’s huge, absolutely,” said Rosemary Gibson, patient safety expert and author of Wall of Silence, a book about medical errors. “Right now the public has very little information about the places where they’re putting their life on the line, and that’s just not acceptable. If you’re a good place, what are they afraid of?”