Hospitals in Arizona and across the country are burying their mistakes, according to a new study recently released by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson. The study found that 15,000 Medicare patients die every month in part due to inadequate treatment in hospitals. The types of medical malpractice detailed in the study are gruesome and include surgical fires, objects left inside patients after surgery and surgeries performed on the wrong patients.
The inspector general’s study follows a report by ProPublica showing that the number of autopsies performed at hospitals has dropped drastically over the past few decades. Autopsies used to be performed on about half of patients who died in hospitals, but now autopsies are performed in only about 5 percent of cases. Some hospitals actively avoid performing autopsies because they do not want to reveal evidence of malpractice.
An autopsy is sometimes called “the ultimate medical audit” because it provides an accurate picture of what caused a patient’s death. One of the most common types of medical negligence revealed during an autopsy is a medical misdiagnosis. Doctors often fail to fully investigate a patient’s symptoms and consequently overlook a very serious disease or condition.
“You really can’t say for sure what went on or didn’t go on without the autopsy as a quality assurance tool,” said Dr. Stephen Cina, chairman of the forensic pathology committee for the College of American Pathologists.
This type of quality assurance makes hospitals nervous because it can raise the number of wrongful death and professional negligence lawsuits filed. Hospitals also have financial reasons for discouraging autopsies because insurers typically do not reimburse the cost of an autopsy. Some new hospitals are even built without a place to do autopsies in an effort to discourage the procedure.
The lack of autopsies is just part of a larger problem of hospitals underreporting the number of serious mistakes that occur. Inspector General Levinson’s study indicates that only one in seven medical errors that harm Medicare patients is reported. This is disturbing because about 130,000 Medicare recipients were harmed by medical negligence in a single month, according to estimates in the study. Hospitals also often ignore the few medical errors that are reported, which means that no procedures are put in place to prevent future errors.
The Obama administration does not plan to establish federal medical error reporting requirements because at least 27 states have established mandatory reporting requirements for adverse events such as infections. Unfortunately, it appears that these reporting obligations are widely ignored and that the high rates of medical malpractice in hospitals will continue to be an issue. Any change in reporting requirements will likely come from the Department of Health and Human Services under the threat of withholding Medicaid payments.
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