We need a more comprehensive approach to investigating medical mistakes

From the wrong diagnosis to the incorrect medication, medical mistakes kill as many as 250,000 people annually in the United States — and injure thousands more. This figure could be much higher, considering there’s never been an actual count of how many patients experience preventable harm. We only have an approximate figure, which may indeed be very far off from the truth, considering the inaccuracies in medical records and the unwillingness of some providers to report medical errors. Regardless, the number is staggering enough as-is, making medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, after heart disease, which is considered to be the number one cause, and cancer, which comes in second. But the purpose of this article is not to shame doctors or nurses, but rather to alert for the need of more research to prevent medical errors from occurring in the first place.

Researchers at John Hopkins School of Medicine caution that the majority of medical errors aren’t a result of inherently bad doctors, and that reporting these errors should not be addressed by punishment or legal action. Rather, the researchers affirm that:

… most errors represent systemic problems, including poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or underuse of safety nets, and other protocols, in addition to unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns that lack accountability.

The medical system needs a more comprehensive approach to investigating medical mistakes, support systems that aid doctors admit and learn from their mistakes and better methods of implementing proven solutions. In the meantime, people will continue to die needlessly. As I write this, my mind keeps drifting to a close family member who died from sepsis, which wasn’t diagnosed until a few hours before her death certificate was issued. She immediately sought medical help and no one detected sepsis. Her story alone would make for an entire article, but I digress. Because she was my mother-in-law, I was there alongside my husband and realize now how poorly treated she was. We never pursued medical malpractice, because we had no strength for a legal battle as we tried to recover from a sudden loss, but maybe we should have if not for us, then to possibly save someone else in the future. But if we don’t talk about the problem of medical errors, there’s no way to fix it.

As a matter of fact, medical errors are so common, I just found out I was administered a medication against recommendations. I read a few days ago about certain conditions, including a particular one that caught my attention. The article read that when the mother has placenta previa, Pitocin should not be used because it can cause hemorrhaging and other adverse health outcomes. And yet, I was administered Pitocin to induce my labor despite having a low-lying placenta. Luckily for me, just like it happens to many others whether they realize it or not, I was fortunate to walk away without even knowing of this until now, four years later.

And medical errors can occur beyond hospital walls, too. Many individuals may not realize that pharmacy technicians, for example, are responsible for filling approximately 96 percent of prescriptions dispensed in pharmacies. This figure comes from the National Pharmacy Technician Association (NPTA), yet 92 percent of us live in states that do not mandate techs to have any formal training.

All the estimates, even on the low end, expose a crisis. We already pay an elevated price for medical and hospital care, and these are the people we are supposed to turn to when we are sick or worse — in critical condition. So who can we turn to if we don’t expose the need for significant changes? It’s time for physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and others involved to come together to admit their mistakes, clear their consciences, be supported, and, most imperative, work together to make the system safer.

Vania Silva is a patient advocate.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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