A Better Way to Manage Medical Errors

Many of us in healthcare know medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States.

We are also aware that healthcare is a high-risk industry. But unlike other high risk-industries however, such as aviation and nuclear energy, healthcare has been too slow to adopt tools, techniques and behaviors proven to lower risk to patients. As a result, errors made by well-intentioned caregivers continue to cause unintentional harm and even death to patients.

In my last ETY blog post, I shared a medical error I was involved in that led to patient harm. I also shared how we hid that error from the patient, as well as other caregivers who worked in our hospital. It is said healthcare “buries” our medical mistakes. Fear of malpractice claims, fear of losing our license, fear of admitting we are fallible and can make a mistake; doctors are expected to be perfect, and this behavior is an unintended consequence of those unrealistic expectations. These are just a few of the reasons caregivers and hospital leaders try to hide or even downright lie when medical errors cause patient harm.

This approach, known as “deny and defend”, is a common legal and malpractice insurance strategy, not only in healthcare but in other insurance-based industries. Not only is “deny and defend” morally and ethically wrong, but in healthcare it also keeps us from learning and improving our care systems when these very unfortunate events occur. If we don’t openly talk about, and learn from our mistakes, we will never fix healthcare so that future patients don’t suffer similar harm. In our wrong-sided surgery error, no one wanted to discuss how we could have prevented that harm from happening again. All we wanted to do was bury it, hoping no one found out. And then what happened? Wrong-sided surgeries continued to occur over and over again for years afterwards.

Historically, the role of hospital risk managers has been to protect the hospital at all cost, even if it meant lying to patients and families. Refusing to answer questions, denying patients access to their medical records, not returning phone calls, or referring patients to hospital lawyers has been routine practice for many health systems. Many patients and families wait years to have their calls returned, and still fail to receive truthful answers on what really happened when there is a conversation. As many plaintiff attorneys have shared through the years, “There’s a lot of lying going on out there”. The only option patients and families often have to get their questions answered, is to hire their own lawyer and file a lawsuit against the hospital and the physician. Once both sides “lawyer up”, the only thing that matters is to win the lawsuit, regardless of the financial cost or additional suffering incurred by all stakeholders. No one wins in a medical malpractice trial.

Fortunately, some courageous health systems, hospitals and medical malpractice carriers are discovering there is a better way…

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