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But doctors and medical science are far from perfect. And although physicians routinely save and dramatically improve their patients’ lives, sometimes they have the opposite effect.
Bad decisions, mistakes, and failures to properly diagnose and treat patients can devastate entire families. These errors can be serious; they can leave patients permanently disabled or dead.
If you or a loved one has been harmed by medical malpractice, Weitz & Luxenberg can help you receive compensation. Weitz & Luxenberg has the experience and expertise to pursue cases against careless medical providers in an era of increasing legal obstacles to such litigations.
Medical mistakes are far more common than you may think.
A 2016 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. The study analyzed death rate data over eight years and found more than 250,000 deaths a year can be attributed to medical errors, ahead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s third-place cause, respiratory disease, which kills almost 150,000 people annually. The top two causes of death were identified as heart disease and cancer, with about 611,000 deaths and 585,000 deaths respectively.
The authors of the study criticized the CDC for failing to create a standardized method for keeping track of fatal medical mistakes. Johns Hopkins surgery Professor Martin Makary says the U.S. is using a system adopted in 1949 when officials didn’t fully appreciate that medical mistakes could kill. Because deaths from medical errors are not tracked nationally, Makary says, the issue doesn’t get the attention it should.
In a letter to the CDC, the authors maintained that tracking deaths from medical errors could lead to research that would reduce such errors by advancing technology that “reduces harmful and unwarranted variation” in medical care.
“Reducing costly medical errors is critical towards the important goal of creating a safer, more reliable health care system,” the letter concluded. “Measuring and understanding the problem is the first step.”
Leaving Objects Inside Patients
Makary was involved in another study in 2012 at Johns Hopkins that found surgeons leave foreign objects such as a sponges inside patients’ bodies after operations 39 times a week, perform the wrong procedures 20 times a week, and operate on the wrong part of the body 20 times a week. All told, researchers in that study estimated 80,000 of these totally preventable incidents occurred between 1990 and 2010, a rate of about 4,000 a year.
But even with deaths from medical errors being so prevalent, researchers have found that the rate of medical malpractice claims has dropped drastically in the last 20 years, according to the findings of a study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In that time, the overall rate of claims paid dropped by more than 55%. The reduction in claims varied widely, depending on the specialty, with pediatricians having the steepest drop at more than 75% and cardiologists having the smallest dip, 13.5%.
The study also ranked the medical mishaps involved in the paid claims, with the most common being error in diagnosis, which accounted for almost 32% of the claims. Next were errors related to surgery at nearly 27%, followed by errors related to medication or treatment at 24.5%.
But while the rate of claims paid has dropped significantly, the amount of money awarded when claims are paid has increased, researchers found. The same study found the number of awards over $1 million on the rise. The average payout for successful claims increased by about 23% to about $353,000 between 2009 and 2014.
The lead researcher, Dr. Adam Schaffer, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, told CBS News that laws aimed at curbing medical malpractice litigations could make it more difficult to find attorneys to bring such claims, which could explain the drop in paid claims. Other reforms have served to screen out claims before they get to court. Those cases that make it through the process could therefore be more likely to result in larger awards.
Tracking Malpractice Claims
Another study found that a very small number of physicians is responsible for a large portion of malpractice awards. That study, published in the Journal of Patient Safety, found that less than 2% of doctors are responsible for half of malpractice payouts reported to the National Practitioner Databank over 25 years. And the likelihood a physician would have a malpractice payout increased with each malpractice award. In other words, once a doctor was the subject of a successful malpractice claim, the odds would increase for that doctor having to make future malpractice payouts.
In order to prove a medical malpractice case, a patient has to show four things:
- The medical provider owed a professional duty to the patient.
- The provider breached that duty.
- That breach resulted in an injury to the patient.
- That injury resulted in damages, both economic and noneconomic, such as pain and suffering.
The concept of medical malpractice dates back to ancient Rome and was introduced into Europe around 1200 AD. The first medical malpractice in the United States began appearing regularly in the 19th century, but cases were rare and had little impact on medicine until the 1960s.
Observant patients may help reduce incidents of malpractice.
A study conducted at Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that surgeons who had the most complaints from patients and family about rude and disrespectful behavior had higher rates of bad outcomes from surgery. That’s because those doctors’ personalities not only rub patients and families the wrong way, but they make work unpleasant for colleagues in the operating room and make it harder for other members of the surgical team to work. Patients receiving care from surgeons with high numbers of complaints saw almost 14%more surgical and medical complications in the 30 days after their operations. If you encounter a rude surgeon, you should not hesitate to speak up. The same goes for family members. Chances are people who work with that surgeon may find him insufferable, as well, and may be afraid to point out potential problems.
One of the researchers estimated that these surly surgeons could be responsible for more than 350,000 post-surgical complications, including infections, every year.