Shefali Luthra of Kaiser Health News recently shared the story of one patient’s unfortunate experience — which represents a global problem with the costs of medical errors:
Despite the Institute of Medicine’s landmark 1999 report, “To Err Is Human,” and, more recently, provisions in the 2010 health law emphasizing quality of care, entering the hospital still brings risk. Whether because of mistakes, infections or plain bad luck, those who go in don’t always come out better.
More than 400,000 people die annually, in part thanks to avoidable medical errors, according to a 2013 estimate from the Journal of Patient Safety. In 2008, the most recent year studied, medical errors cost an extra $19.5 billion in national spending, most of which was spent on extra care and medication, according to another report.
If a problem such as Thompson’s stemmed from negligence, a malpractice lawsuit may be an option. But this can take time and money. And lawyers who collect only when there’s a settlement or victory may not want to take on a case unless it’s exceptionally clear that the doctor or hospital is at fault.
That creates a Catch-22 situation, said John Goldberg, a professor at Harvard Law School and an expert in tort law. “We’ll never know if something has happened because of malpractice,” he said, “because it’s not financially viable to bring a lawsuit.” That leaves the patient responsible for extra costs.
Ann and Charles Thompson maintain that he experienced an avoidable error. The hospital denied wrongdoing, Ann said, and the physician’s notes indicated the Thompsons had been advised of the risks of the procedure, including injury to the colon. She and her husband tried pursuing a lawsuit but couldn’t find a lawyer who would take the case. The hospital and the doctor who performed the test declined to comment, with the hospital citing patient privacy laws.