Hospital errors in the U.S.: you have a right to know the facts

If you or a loved one has to be admitted into a hospital for emergency or scheduled surgery or treatment in the U.S., you probably think that it’s a routinely safe place to go.

Reality, however, may be very different from those expectations.

Across the nation, medical mistakes routinely occur inside hospitals and the systems in place to report those errors vary greatly from state to state.

Photo of surgery in an operating room.

Photo of surgery in an operating room. Image credit: ©

So just how risky can it actually be?

“Hospital errors kill more people every year than car crashes, diabetes or pneumonia, according to federal government estimates,” reported a story recently in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper.

The non-profit Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, reported in a landmark study in 1999 that some 98,000 people die in the U.S. each year due to preventable medical errors.

For all of us, that’s a worrisome situation.

In Missouri, many hospitals “have opposed legislation that would release information about serious errors,” according to the Post-Dispatch story. “The state is among a minority of states that don’t track errors.”

One official at a Missouri hospital told the Post-Dispatch that “requiring hospitals to publicly report serious errors would create an atmosphere in which health care workers and institutions could feel uncomfortable owning up to mistakes.”

Other states, including Illinois and here in Pennsylvania, do have hospital error reporting rules that require hospitals to disclose incidents and provide detailed information so that mistakes aren’t repeated. In Illinois, a “hospital report card” program was established where patients can get detailed information about the quality of care provided in hospitals and medical centers around the state. Residents can check treatment statistics on an information-rich Web site.

Here in Pennsylvania, the Patient Safety Authority (PSA) was created in 2002 to help gather hospital error statistics and information so it can be used to improve patient care. In 2004, the agency mandated the reporting of serious events and incidents affecting patients being treated in hospitals in the Commonwealth. The PSA is an independent state agency established under the Medical Care and Reduction of Error “MCare” Act.  The information is confidential and doesn’t name hospitals, patients or doctors, but provides aggregated information that can be used to get a snapshot of hospital error rates. You can’t search for results for individual hospitals or doctors.

The PSA Web site does include general information and tips for choosing the best healthcare facilities for you and your family.

While states around the nation continue to start these kinds of projects, they are not present everywhere.

Intriguingly, no statistics for medical errors are kept so far on a national basis.

At the same time, even having reporting rules in individual states doesn’t solve all the problems.

A story in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2008 reported that even after error reporting rules went into effect in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that some hospitals reported not a single medical error occurring in 2007. That was unrealistic, the story reported.

Medical error reporting rules across the nation have been in the news often.

In Seattle, upgrades are still being pursued for an error reporting system that began in 2006, according to a story last September in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Despite the system being in place, deadly hospital errors are still occurring too often, the paper reported.

A Hearst Newspapers project, Dead By Mistake, last year chronicled the problems and deaths of many patients around the country. It is a somber project that details case after case about medical errors and how they affect families.

Even Consumers Union – the publishers of Consumer Reports – has gotten into the health care quality assurance arena with the creations of its Safe Patient Project Web site. The site allows consumers to look up their local hospitals to find out if they are complying with safety standards to prevent and reduce the number of central line bloodstream infections that occur in intensive care units across the nation. Such infections kill 30,000 patients in hospitals each year, according to the group.

So what’s this all mean?

At it’s core, it means that you and your loved ones need to ask a lot of questions before undergoing surgeries or other treatments in hospitals and other medical facilities, Do fact-checking and seek reviews and recommendations about the facilities and medical personnel who you are considering for your procedures.

Many hospitals today have Web sites where you can search for reviews of doctors. Take advantage of those sites and reviews.

You can even find out information from Web sites sponsored by groups such as the Pennsylvania Health Care Quality Alliance, a non-profit alliance of health care providers and insurers that provide aggregated data for consumers to review. On the site you can look up hospitals and other facilities where you might seek care to see how they rate in safety, treatment and quality.

Ultimately, the safety of the hospital care received by you and your loved ones is for you to ensure by asking questions and taking the lead in treatment plans and strategies.

In the end, if you or a family member is injured due to a medical error in a hospital or other healthcare facility, the attorneys here at MyPhillyLawyer stand ready to help you.

We represent clients regularly in medical error cases and have the expertise, experience and skilled staff to fight for you and obtain the damages that you are entitled to receive.

When losing isn’t an option, call MyPhillyLawyer.