medical malpractice

Robert Berenson“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

This aphorism has been deliciously, but, alas, incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein (the saying actually has mixed origins, but credit properly might be given to sociologist William Bruce Cameron, writing in 1963).

But, whatever its provenance, the saying is particularly appropriate in describing the woeful lack of attention paid to the long-standing problem of diagnosis errors in the provision of health care services.

Last week academic researchers from Baylor and the University of Texas published important research estimating that one in 20 adults in the U.S., or roughly 12 million people every year, receive an error of diagnosis—a wrong, missed or delayed diagnosis—in ambulatory care.

This likely represents a conservative estimate of the incidence of such errors in ambulatory care and does not attempt to include inpatient hospital care or care provided in nursing homes and post-acute care facilities, such as rehab hospitals.

The news media correctly decided that this peer-reviewed finding deserved prominent attention—it was a lead story on “NBC Nightly News” and other national news programs.

It seems that attaching a large number to the prevalence of such errors provided the needed news hook to give the problem the attention it has long deserved. Surveys reveal that the public is worried as much about a misdiagnosis or missed diagnosis as any other quality and safety issue in health care.

Autopsy studies performed over time find that unacceptably high rates of diagnosis errors persist; similarly, diagnosis errors continue to represent a leading cause of medical malpractice suits.

But even without newsworthy body counts, the problem of diagnosis errors has been known to clinicians for decades, if largely ignored by stakeholders and policy-makers as a major quality and safety problem.

Continue reading “Placing Diagnosis Errors on the Policy Agenda”

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I felt sad when I went to make rounds in the hospital.

One of my patients, a colleague, had been readmitted in poor condition for recurrence of a primary lung sarcoma.

I spent a few minutes examining Dennis and chatting.  He then, with a quizzical look, said, “Jim, I’m going to have to sue you.  I know I’m dying.  My wife Alice and the kids are still pretty young.”  He saw my look of surprise and added, “You know, I don’t have much life insurance or other very significant funds for them to live on.  It’s nothing personal.  I know you’ve given me good care, but my wife is upset and tends to blame you for the outcome.  I guess the hospital and others will be named.”

There wasn’t much more for me to say at the time except, “Dennis I can find another attending for you if you’d like.”  He replied, “No, I want to stay with you.”

Dennis was a well liked family doctor.  About five years earlier a “coin lesion” was discovered on a chest X-Ray.  This 2cm spot in the right upper lobe had a smooth rounded border and didn’t contain calcium.  A CT scan showed no enlarged lymph nodes and no other spots elsewhere.  A needle biopsy of the spot was not diagnostic.  We knew the spot was new because an X-Ray five years earlier was normal.  He hadn’t traveled to an area where Valley Fever or other fungal infections were common.

Continue reading “Doctor Versus Doctor”

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Malpractice lawsuits are a necessary evil in our society.  At times, they are frivolous, often resulting from a patient’s or family’s anger at a result that was not what they had hoped.  Some are actually designed just to try to get a financial settlement.  When doctors are sued for malpractice, it is a searing process, isolating and painful.  I have known several excellent doctors who have given up established practices so they will never have to go through the possibility of another lawsuit.  That is a real loss to society.

But our legal system is also designed to protect patients.  Malpractice lawsuits can be justified when a doctor acts negligently or makes a decision that is clearly outside of the bounds of the accepted standard of care.

One of things we know about quality and safety lapses in hospitals, though, is that they are often the result of systemic problems in those organizations.  It is not that a doctor or nurse has intentionally committed a clinical error.  It is that the way work is organized in the hospital causes errors to occur.  For example, many hospital-related infections arise this way, and people die or are harmed as a result.  This raises a question as to whether it should be possible to sue for malpractice when a hospital fails to act to correct systemic problems.

Anne Carroll, now retired, has graduate degrees in information science and public health.  She raised the question this way recently in a recent health care quality and safety chat room (reprinted here with her permission.)

Continue reading “A Different Kind of Malpractice”

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Whenever I post about the malpractice system, I try to make it clear that while I don’t consider it to be the cause, nor the cure, for the problems in our health care system, that doesn’t mean that the system isn’t broken in many ways. Nuisance cases do exist; cases that have real merit never see the light of day. One additional side effect of portraying the malpractice system as the boogeyman of the entire system is that we lose sight of the fact that it really does impact physicians. Take defense costs.

There’s a new paper in the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics by yours truly and co-authors that looks at this in detail:

The objective of this study was to take a closer look at defense-related expenses for medical malpractice cases over time. We conducted a retrospective review of medical malpractice claims reported to the Physician Insurers Association of America’s Data Sharing Project with a closing date between January 1, 1985 and December 31, 2008. On average a medical malpractice claim costs more than $27,000 to defend. Claims that go to trial are much more costly to defend than are those that are dropped, withdrawn, or dismissed.

Continue reading “Malpractice Defense Costs Are Real”

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