The Baltimore Sun published an important front-page article yesterday on hospital errors in Maryland.
The premise of the article is a simple yet different approach to medical mistakes in Maryland hospitals. It goes like this. We have about 400,000 patients who are killed every year by medical malpractice.
How are Maryland hospitals faring? We don’t know. There is a major epidemic that kills enough people in this county to fill Camden Yards 10 times a year. Malpractice that causes serious injury could fill Camden Yards over 100 times (4,000,000) a year. Yet we have no quality way of estimating how Maryland is faring. Why is this? The hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies do not provide this data to us.
Said differently, we are all particularly those of us that are young or old – vulnerable to this grave risk. We face other risks, of course. Heart disease, cancer, motor vehicle accidents, diabetes, all pose substantial risks of death. With these risks, we can sift through the data, understand the risks, and do what we can. We quit smoking, eat better, wear seat belts, and so forth.
My firm handles malpractice cases. I try like crazy to remain objective but, if you are honest with yourself, you get caught up in your profession and you cannot quite remain completely objective. Which is why I love getting support from the medical profession and academia on issues like this. Listen to Dr. Peter J. Pronovost, a prominent patient safety expert at Johns Hopkins: “Are they grossly underreported? Shamefully, no one knows. If you added up all the adverse events in hospitals, they would probably be about the third leading cause of death. The public should be screaming that we deserve better.”
Why are we not screaming? No one thinks malpractice will happen to them.
Why We Are Not Given Information That Might Kill Us
Maryland hospitals are required to report serious medical errors to state regulators. They don’t. No one is holding their feet to the fire, letting them throw around things like patient privacy or confusion over the rules. These are not the problem. The problem is the pathological fear of doing anything that might fuel a medical malpractice lawsuit. The funny thing is that it really will do no such thing. Doctors and hospitals know full well how luxurious their state protections are with malpractice mistakes that have gone to peer review committees. We let them evaluate cases, find doctors who have committed horrible negligence, and then let them deny that anything went wrong. We tolerate this grave injustice because we want to get all the facts out about malpractice so we can make sure it does not happen again. But what is the point of allowing these grave injustices when we are not even collecting the facts we need to know what we need to know?
Choosing the Best Maryland Hospital
I don’t need data to know that Johns Hopkins and UMMS are great hospitals. But what if I live in Anne Arundel County and I’m choosing between Baltimore-Washington Medical Center and Anne Arundel County Medical Center in an emergency? I have not a stitch of evidence to make me choose one over the other. If I did, two things would happen. First, I could make a choice that might save my life. Second, these two facilities would compete like crazy to make sure their rate of malpractice is low because they want patients to choose them. Can you imagine a free-market competition to avoid malpractice errors? It might cut those 400,000 deaths in half. It would also let Maryland citizens know what they should know in 2014 to keep themselves and their families safe.