Are Doctors and Hospitals…

If 44,000 people per year died in avoidable incidents from a single cause, you'd think the American public would be up in arms for a solution. In fact, that many people are killed, and many more injured, from something that could be prevented. If you guessed that "something" is medical mistakes, you would be correct. Are doctors and hospitals doing enough to prevent deadly medical errors? Is there, in fact, more that could be done? And if there is, why isn't anyone doing it?

Statutes of Limitations and Medical Malpractice

One way to encourage hospitals and doctors to do more to prevent serious medical errors is to hold them accountable when they fail to. One way to do so is through medical malpractice lawsuits. In most states, you have a limited time from the date that you discovered a medical error to bring a lawsuit. In a few states, you have only a limited amount of time from the date of the mistake itself to bring a claim. In one case, a woman had an X-ray taken that showed a suspicious mass on her lung. For unknown reasons, the patient was not told of her condition, and died three years later from a form of lung cancer that should have been curable.

The woman's daughter tried to file a lawsuit against the hospital, but her claim was barred because New York allows claims for medical malpractice only within two and a half years of the medical mistake, even if the mistake was discovered outside that time period, and even if the mistake resulted in death.

In Oregon, the statute of limitations requires a victim of medical malpractice to file a claim within two years of the date they discovered their injury from malpractice. However, all claims are barred five years from the date of the medical error. The problem is that some medical mistakes, whether acts or omissions, may not come to light for years. When they are discovered outside of the statute of limitations (the time period for filing a claim), patients and families cannot successfully file a claim.

Organizations lobbying on behalf of hospitals have argued that extending statutes of limitation will lead to an explosion in malpractice cases. This is unlikely, since malpractice cases are not filed after most medical errors. But it would provide families of those patients whose injuries were not immediately apparent with a chance for relief. It would also send a message to doctors and hospitals that they could be held responsible for malpractice, whenever it was committed.

How Can Hospitals Prevent Deadly Medical Errors?

Medical malpractice may be widespread, but claims of malpractice are not evenly distributed throughout the population of doctors in the United States. There is variation between specialties, and a relatively small percentage of doctors are responsible for a shockingly high percentage of claims. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one percent of the over 54,000 physicians studied accounted for over 32% of all paid claims. Sixteen percent of the doctors studied had at least two paid claims against them; four percent of doctors had at least three. Another study estimated that six percent of doctors were responsible for 58 percent of medical malpractice payments over a fourteen-year time period.

Unfortunately, it may take many successful medical malpractice claims against a doctor before he or she loses her license. In the meantime, many patients are exposed to the risk of deadly medical errors. What can be done to protect patients from the worst "repeat offenders" in medical malpractice cases?

There are many possibilities. States could lower the threshold for review of medical licenses so that doctors who repeatedly commit medical errors lose their licenses sooner. Hospital administrators could experience greater consequences for failing to adequately screen or train physicians in their organizations. For example, a percentage of top administrators' compensation could be linked to patient safety and reduction of medical malpractice. This would not only send the message that patient safety is a high priority, but give administrators a very personal incentive to improve it. While one would hope that a financial incentive would not be necessary, having such incentives in place could be very effective.

As things stand now, medical lobbying organizations have been fairly successful at ensuring that doctors and hospitals are in charge of policing themselves, which they have done with varying success. How can you ensure that you are not a victim of a serious medical error? You can research the doctors and hospitals from which you intend to receive treatment, including asking directly about malpractice claims against them. Of course, sometimes you don't have a choice about the doctor you see or the medical facility in which you're treated, such as in an emergency. And you may not have the chance to ask questions about your treatment before receiving it.

Whether or not you have had the chance to research before being treated, if you or a loved one is the victim of a medical error, filing a medical malpractice action could be your best option. Not only will doing so help to compensate you financially for your injury, it will encourage hospitals and doctors to avoid errors in the future. We invite you to contact our law firm to have your questions about medical errors answered.