A Look at Prevalence of Medical Errors

Michael P. Quinn, Jr.

Insurance lobbyists and spin-masters across the country have led the American people to believe that there are hundreds of thousands of “frivolous” medical malpractice lawsuits filed every year and very few instances of medical malpractice. The sad fact is that the reverse is true. Every year, there are tens of thousands of Americans – mothers, fathers, children – being killed by preventable medical errors.

Any debate over medical malpractice lawsuits that does not include a discussion on the number of preventable medical errors ignores the problem. And, while many powerful interests want to change the discussion to insurance premiums or claim that frivolous lawsuits are costing citizens their money – focusing on anything other than the negligence itself and reducing medical errors – is dangerous.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine released a first-of-its-kind study of the state of medicine in this nation and found that preventable medical errors killed as many as 98,000 people every year in America at a cost of $29 billion. Further research by others has amplified the extent of medical errors. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, in its December 2008 Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, stated that there were 181,000 severe injuries attributable to medical negligence in United States hospitals in 2003. In their fifth annual “Patient Safety in American Hospitals Study,” HealthGrades Inc. cited that errors in treatment resulted in 238,337 potentially preventable deaths of Medicare patients in the U.S., costing $8.8 billion. HealthGrades Inc. analyzed over 41 million patient records for the study and found that approximately 3 percent of all Medicare patients suffered from some medical error – which equates to about 1.1 million Patient Safety Incidents (PSIs) from 2004 – 2006.

Even errors that the government, hospital administrators, and private health insurers have classified as “never events,” like bed sores in nursing homes or wrong site surgeries, still happen with frightening frequency. Here in Rhode Island, we are not strangers to these problems. In 2009, Rhode Island Hospital was fined $150,000 and ordered to take the extraordinary step of installing video cameras in all its operating rooms after it had its fifth wrong-site surgery since 2007. See NBC News story and Fox News story.

Despite this, the American public remains unaware of just how serious the medical error problem is. Equally as concerning is that many Americans still blame lawyers and the civil justice system for the filing of medical malpractice lawsuits.

AtDD&B, we give each potential medical malpractice claim serious consideration before filing a lawsuit. We do not take lightly the responsibility we have – to our clients, the public, and the medical profession – to only pursue claims of medical error that are legitimate. Sadly, there are more than the American public knows about. For more information on the extent of the medical error problem in this country, click on the links below.

“Survive your hospital stay.” Consumer Reports; May 2014.

“When Medical Students Make Errors.” New York Times; 5/15/2014.

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