For residents of Massachusetts, medical malpractice and its deadly consequences may be even closer to home than they think.
Federal regulators from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have cited 3 Massachusetts hospitals for failing to properly report patient deaths and injuries caused by certain medical devices. A dozen other hospitals from around the nation were also cited for failing to report cases of malpractice.
Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women’s, and UMass Memorial were among 17 hospitals inspected last December. The FDA found that 15 of these hospitals, including the 3 in Massachusetts, were either late in reporting instances where patients were harmed by medical devices or never bothered to file the reports at all.
Medical malpractice is a serious problem that occurs all too frequently. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded in early 2015 that “medical errors” are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and are far more common than we think. The study said that 251,000 deaths occur every year because of mistakes made at hospitals and other health care facilities.
What does this mean? That the only killers more deadly than medical errors are heart disease and cancer, while respiratory disease, accidents (including car accidents), stroke, and Alzheimer’s all claim less lives each year than do mishaps, mistakes, and mix-ups at the hospital.
251,000 Deaths, and Many of Them Preventable
The FDA regulators investigated cases where infection may have been caused by contaminated instruments called duodenoscopes, which are used to examine a person’s small intestine. Both Mass General, in Boston, and UMass Memorial, in Worcester, were found guilty of infecting patients with contaminated duodenoscopes. Three infected patients from UMass Memorial later died, though 2 of these patients were also suffering from complicated illnesses unrelated to the duodenoscopes.
Dr. Dominic Nompleggi, chief of gastroenterology at UMass Memorial, said that altogether, there were 14 patients who developed infections. He said the hospital reported the cases to state health officials but not the FDA because hospital staff didn’t think they were required to.
FDA inspectors also found that Mass General failed to report the deaths of 2 patients. One of these patients died of a heart attack while in the emergency department. The hospital also failed to report numerous injuries and was late in reporting the deaths of 2 other patients who died in surgery.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital failed to report a death and 4 other injuries caused by a power morcellator, a device often used during hysterectomies to shred and extract tissue. The risks involved with the morcellator were first highlighted in 2013, when Dr. Amy Reed discovered that an aggressive cancer had spread throughout her abdominal cavity as a result of a hysterectomy.
An Ongoing Tragedy
In recent years, hospitals, Big Pharma device makers, and government regulators have been criticized for failing to act quickly when evidence suggests that a certain device pose a threat to patients. Hospitals are required by law to report patient injuries and illnesses caused by medical devices.
Some doctors have responded to the FDA’s findings defensively. Dr. Elizabeth Mort, senior vice president of quality and safety at Mass General, said the FDA is “widening the net” of requirements on hospitals, making hospitals report more and more types of incidents they weren’t previously required to identify.
Though this may be the case, it doesn’t excuse the appalling frequency with which medical malpractice occurs in American hospitals. When suffering men and women go to a hospital, they deserve to be helped, not given further illnesses and injuries. If victims of medical malpractice can’t be cured, then at the very least they deserve the opportunity to pursue justice.
Unfortunately, medical error may very well continue to be a major cause of death and injury in the U.S. A small source of comfort is that the FDA and other agencies are working to root out the sources of this tragedy and prevent more innocent people from becoming victims.