I have written on this topic before, but it bears repeating because the problem is so pervasive, devastating and persistent. Preventable medical errors, those resulting from medical negligence by a health care provider or institution, are the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Nearly 200,000 people die each year from such errors. To put it in perspective, that’s 6 times more people than are killed in auto accidents. Medical errors injure perhaps millions more - perhaps as many 15 million according to The Institute for Healthcare Improvement. 1 in 7 Medicare patients are injured as a result of medical negligence during a hospital stay and 1 in 5 of those patients die as a result. That is simply not acceptable.
Although those numbers are staggering, most people don’t realize how pervasive the problem is. While 20% of Americans report they or a family member have been severely injured or killed as a result of medical malpractice, 50% believe that fewer than 5,000 people die annually from medical errors. Most folks believe that the number of medical malpractice lawsuits outnumber cases of genuine malpractice when, in fact, the opposite is true. The lack of public awareness is troubling.
Greedy lawyers are often used as the scapegoat for the high cost of medical care, but malpractice related deaths alone cost $28 billion annually. It has also been demonstrated that medical malpractice lawsuits, including defense costs and payouts, are a fraction of a percent of the total cost of health care. But is anyone listening? While the issue of malpractice reform is complex and polarizing, clearly lawsuits are not causing malpractice related deaths. The debate must shift from stemming the imaginary tide of malpractice litigation to changing the systems that result in malpractice claims to begin with. Perhaps Medicare and a number of insurers’ recent decisions to refuse to pay providers for treatment related to their own medical negligence will provide the financial incentive to deliver safer health care.