The High Cost of Medical Errors

Mayura Iyer, MJLST Staff

When we feel unwell, or have an injury, or are battling a serious condition, we turn to doctors and hospitals to take care of us and return us to health. But what if these professionals are actually adding to the harm? A recent study in the Journal of Patient Safety stated that between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death. These numbers are staggering and make medical errors the third leading cause of death in America. With statistics like that, you would expect the problem to be the topic of every major headline, however, these facts are not well documented or disseminated.

John Grout, John Hill, and Arlen Langvardt discussed the prevalence and causes of medical errors and how to mistake-proof the healthcare industry in their article in Volume 14, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. Their article stated that medical errors stem from the multi-factorial, complex nature of medical procedures and from the subjective component of providing medical care. However, the article goes on to suggest several ways in which medical errors can be minimized through “mistake-proofing” measures that have had great success in other industries. The article gives examples of a variety of mistake-proofing methods, from using devices to monitor staff hygiene to using computers to aid the process of prescribing medication.

So why, when there are ways to tackle the issue, are the rates of medical errors not improving? Part of the problem is the institutionalized culture of healthcare. There has historically been a pass of sorts for the errors of doctors, granting them a pardon for reasonable human error. Furthermore, there is a culture of overlooking the mistakes of colleagues – partly because of a fear of retaliation and partly because there is an unspoken rule of maintaining and protecting professional reputations. However, when the cost of error is equal to the value of human life, it is necessary to break down harmful practices and implement policies that will adequately address the problem of fatal medical errors.

Academics, administrators, and doctors themselves have recognized this issue and even suggested easily to implement methods of error reduction. Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has suggested simple ideas like using cameras to record medical procedures and electronically-published reviews and ratings to make healthcare providers more accountable and thus minimize errors. With the problem only increasing, it will soon be impossible for healthcare providers to ignore. But recognizing the problem is only the first step; the more complicated task will be implementing policies that address the issue and ensuring adequate compliance. However, with the insight offered by practitioners and academics alike, the solution to this problem seems within reach.