A recent article in the Chicago Tribune (not to mention on the Chicago lawyer’s Injury Board site — under the heading General Negligence) reveals that the nation’s first official program intended to document hospital safety issues remains mired in bureaucratic and financial chaos five years after launch, with no findings yet published. In fact, staffing hasn’t even been completed yet, and one of the three major components of the program hasn’t yet established ground rules or appointed an advisory group.
The program was established by the Illinois state legislature in 2003 to provide the public with reliable and detailed information about the track record of various hospitals within the state, and to serve as a model of accountability for other states to emulate. Three separate studies were included in the initial plan:
- The first was charged with tracking hospital-acquired infections.
- The second with reviewing hospital performance on 30 major medical procedures.
- And the third with documenting egregious medical errors–which, according to the Tribune, include such mistakes as “surgery on the wrong side of a patient’s brain,” and “leaving a surgical sponge inside a patient’s abdomen.”
On the one hand, it’s distressing that such a study even needs to be conducted — who wants to think about the fact that “accidents” such as wrong-hemisphere brain surgery might happen to you the next time you visit a hospital? But the fact remains that such mistakes not only do occur; they happen with enough frequency to warrant a state-mandated study. (We know from personal experience: a friend of ours went into the hospital for a mastectomy and had the wrong breast removed.) And, as the yet-to-be-conducted study points out, surgical errors represent only one-third of the problem. There’s also the issue of hospital-induced infections, which number over 100,000 annually in the United States. The private healthcare ratings company, HealthGrades, reported that in 2006, “Patient safety incidents in American hospitals grew from 1.18 million to 1.24 million” a year. That’s a lot of safety incidents — not very reassuring if you need to go to the hospital!
I tackled a related issue in my last newsletter, where I observed that medical error ranks as the fifth leading cause of death in this country, right behind prescription drug mistakes — causing up to 98,000 deaths each year in the United States alone — more than traffic accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS. Not to mention the central point of the newsletter: that a huge percentage of physicians cover up medical mistakes made by their colleagues.
Given these facts, it’s incredible that studies on hospital safety are so rare (and don’t even get completed when they’re authorized), and that they don’t feature prominently in headline news. How can we expect to improve the quality of care without accountability? As Barak Obama, who advocated for the Hospital Report Card project in his role as state senator, said, “Patients have the right to information about the cost and quality of hospitals so they can make informed decisions about their health.” Even Patricia Merryweather, senior vice president of the Illinois Hospital Association, said, “It would be helpful to have the information out there.”
While it’s admirable that Illinois lawmakers sought to educate and empower health-care consumers, something has gone terribly wrong. Some might suspect a conspiracy by the guilty. But it’s just as likely, as the Tribune states, that the Illinois health industry just can’t get it’s act together to conduct these studies because of “in-fighting and inertia,” changing regulations, and inefficiency — which is even more frightening. Incompetence trumps conspiracy. With a conspiracy, you can throw out the conspirators (assuming you can find them). But with systemic incompetence, what do you do — throw out the entire system? Either way, you’re in deep doo-doo.
We already knew that a huge number of accidents, secondary infections, and unnecessary deaths occur inside the world’s hospitals, but the bottom line is that now we know that these hospitals are unable to police themselves. My advice to you is to follow the principles of the Baseline of Health Program to keep yourself as healthy as possible, thereby minimizing your contact with the world’s hospitals — unless you like playing Russian roulette.