You may have heard by now that medical errors are currently the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States. And, yet, in spite of this horrifying news, thankfully, this once-hidden fact is quickly becoming common knowledge. In recent years, an increase in medical malpractice awareness has certainly led to an increase in public outrage and strategy. Is this problem, once shrouded in a culture of secrecy, finally beginning to be discussed and addressed openly?
The figures here are quite astonishing: 365,000 people die unnecessarily every year from medical error, and even countless more are injured. The good news is that revolutionary, yet simple, procedural changes — such as improved communication, and increased reporting — can go a long way in preventing unnecessary deaths.
Birth Injury and Medical Error — an Incomplete Picture?
A 2012 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) examined hospital reporting systems and found that, by and large, they do not capture most incidents of patient harm. In fact, “only an estimated 14 percent of the patient harm events experienced by Medicare beneficiaries” were reported.
This issue of non-reporting is especially dangerous when we consider that birth injuries occur in 7 out of every 1,000 births. Oftentimes, injuries such as cerebral palsy can take weeks, months, or in some cases even years, to become apparent. In the meantime, victims lose valuable time that could have been spent utilizing cutting-edge technology and medical advances.
Until all instances of medical error and negligence are reported, patients will continue to suffer. The stress and self-doubt associated with questioning a medical professional’s conduct is an unfair burden to place on victims of malpractice, and, ultimately, it stalls the process of effective medical treatment.
Full reporting is the cornerstone to comprehensive procedural overhaul, as it has been proven to decrease the occurrence of serious events leading to death or injury. As always, accountability is the antidote to negligence.
Hospital Miscommunication Runs Deep
The types of miscommunication that can occur in a hospital setting are many. To start with, different hospital facilities are often not able to communicate with each other. If a patient requires medical services while in a different state, and comprehensive medical records are not readily available, the possibility of medical error entering into diagnosis and treatment is fairly strong.
It is worth noting that doctors are certainly in favor of record sharing. A 2015 survey found that 96 percent of physicians believe that the ability of electronic health records (EHRs) to “access relevant patient data from other EHRs” is crucial to improving patient care. How can this be reconciled with the fact that only 14 percent of physicians share data with providers outside their organization?
In addition to enhancing communication between hospitals, medical professionals must learn how to communicate more effectively in-house. New technology — like that developed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts — has improved communication in the crucial handoff stage when shift change occurs and new staff members must be thoroughly updated.
Miscommunication is preventable — therefore, negligence stemming from miscommunication is also preventable. If medical institutions focused on addressing weaknesses in communication, thousands of lives could be saved each year.
Don’t Underestimate the Role of Awareness
As a society, we must choose to address this issue or nothing will change. Each day we remain idle, roughly 1,000 people will needlessly die, and more will be injured. It may seem like this is too big of a problem to tackle — but this thinking is incorrect. Simple yet comprehensive policy changes can prevent miscommunication that leads to malpractice.
The name of the game here is communication. Doctors and medical professionals must learn how to communicate with each other. Electronic databases must be designed to do the same. Medical errors must be recorded in the name of transparency. In addition, doctors guilty of malpractice must be held accountable, and for good reason — malpractice lawsuits have been proven to improve safety and training.
One of the reasons why the high incidence of medical error has persisted for so long is the culture of secrecy that surrounds it. In many cases, this secrecy is also mixed with a large dose of corruption. In order to address this health crisis, awareness must be raised, and the facts must be brought out of the shadows into the light of day where public scrutiny can begin to provoke meaningful change in institutional policy that can save thousands upon thousands of lives each year.