Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Malpractice: Reported Medical Errors

{Wall Street Journal Errors}
Wall Street Journal Errors

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports the state of Minnesota releasing a survey of 378,544 surgeries performed in the hospitals of that state in a 15-month period. During that time, 99 serious medical errors were found, 21 of which resulted in the death of the patient. One error in about four thousand surgeries, and one death in twenty thousand. Because of an understandable reluctance to self-report mistakes, assume this incidence of negligent errors is a bare minimum level of the true incidence. But arbitrarily doubling that to a rate of one death in ten thousand, would be a safety record that calls the malpractice crisis to account. Minnesota is somewhat special, to be sure, frequently held out as demonstrating the lowest medical costs in the country. So go on, then, say the rest of the country has one death in five thousand surgeries. You might be very risk-averse to feel such an incidence warrants destroying our present medical system, imposing some new one with unknowable risk content. That's especially true if you recognize that average American life expectancy got four months longer during those fifteen months. One way to reduce the number of errors would be to perform fewer surgeries, but there are ways of measuring the harm that would do. It's not ever comfortable to defend any error, but it really is necessary to examine the full consequences of any proposal about them.

Let's extend these examples. Since there were only five fatal medication errors in 400,000 Minnesota surgeries, then fatal medication errors must be impossibly rare. An event that only occurs once in eighty thousand cases must represent very special circumstances when it does happen. If people are of the mindset to take 79,000 successful surgeries for granted while applying the most pejorative scrutiny to one case that was unusual, there is no way statistics can change a mindset that the medical system is riddled with error.

My own reaction to these bare statistics is that if there really was only one death from a medication error, there must have been five hundred near-misses. I would conjecture the persons making these mistakes probably caught them before they got serious most of the time, perhaps four hundred times. And then one or two other people caught it most of the rest of the time, leaving the last few cases to escape by pure luck, and one unlucky person making it through to the statistical report. Over a period of two centuries, the hospital has developed systems for catching errors, and most of the systems depend on redundancy. We in hospitals do almost everything three times, screening out a huge amount of human error under stress. Any efficiency expert worth his stop-watch can see repetition and overlap, redundancy, and\waste. Focused factories, as Professor Herzlinger of Harvard styles them, can easily save money by enforcing a discipline of doing it once, and doing it right the first time. That saves money, and that's not a minor issue. But if we yield too far to this pressure, some of those other five hundred medication errors are likely to prove fatal.

A modern hospital employs several thousand employees, of varying levels of skill and training, with a great deal of employee turnover. An occasional incorrigibly incompetent employee can occasionally do real damage before being identified and dismissed. In recent years professional shortages in critical areas can force some substandard employees to be tolerated longer than they should be. By encouraging longer stretches of employment, a congenial slow-paced environment can reduce the incidence of errors but then look out for those efficiency experts. And crowded, tense anthills of activity must perform all day and all night, weekends and holidays. Emergencies appear out of nowhere, the door to the ambulance entrance banging open to a cluster of shouting excited firemen. They can appear at a moment when every single employee is lashed to a heaving deck of other necessities, or wearily starting out the door at the end of a tumultuous day. Some other pious professor or earnest newspaper columnist offers the non-helpful suggestion that we would perform better if we got more rest. What suggestions might be valuable to reduce stress when the loudspeaker blares, Code Blue?

Originally published: Wednesday, June 21, 2006; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019