New research released this month by a leading patient safety expert shows that 1 out of every 20 patients, or approximately 12 million U.S. adults each year, will be misdiagnosed by their doctor or hospital. These numbers are staggering because they involve major illnesses like colon cancer, lung cancer, pneumonia, infections, and other serious, life threatening diseases. What’s worse is that several experts believe the newly released data is a bare minimum, and that it undercounts the true incidence of medical diagnosis errors. The culprit? Lack of attention, insufficient time spent with patients, lack of technical support, and a “chaotic outpatient environment” for evaluating patients.
Patients must be on guard. They must ask questions and push for better answers.
But doctors and hospitals should eliminate this epidemic of mistakes. Think about it: if airplanes and airplane pilots had this type of failure rate, if 1 out of every 20 commercial aircraft crashed in flight, almost no one would travel by air.Over the years, we have been told that the civil justice system is an inconvenient and troublesome venue for creating incentives in the health care industry. Doctors and hospitals, along with the insurance industry, big business, and the tort reforming wing of the Republican Party, have fueled the propaganda machine to persuade us that we should restrict or eliminate civil lawsuits that seek to hold health care providers accountable for their careless mistakes.
The Florida legislature, in response to the pressure exerted by these groups and contrary to the voices of consumer groups, patent advocacy groups, and lawyer groups, has passed as much if not more tort reform legislation designed to immunize and insulate health care providers than any legislature in the country.
The result? More and more misdiagnoses, more and more carelessness, and no sign of any improvement in the quality of health care. The other result? Hospitals and medical malpractice insurance companies have saved money they would have otherwise spent improving the quality of care or defending malpractice claims.
I believe the tort reform efforts are destined to diminish the quality of our health care system. The only meaningful way to incentivize high quality care is to create financial incentives. Among the financial incentives, the civil justice system and the specter of an adverse jury verdict and money judgment are among the most effective.
It works in the airline industry. It works in the automotive industry. It works on our roadways for trucking companies and passenger vehicles. It likewise works in the health care industry.
Let’s resist any further efforts to delegitimize our civil justice system. Let’s resist the battle cries of the insurance industry and corporate medicine. Let’s put the system back together and insist that all aspects of our society be held accountable for the harm they do to others. This includes hospitals and doctors. No one should be above the law, unless we want to create corporate niches where safety and quality no longer matter. The practice of medicine, where life and death are often at stake, is not the place in our society where we should ever do anything that disincentivizes safety or quality.
The next time you hear a politician arguing for caps on medical malpractice damages or other restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits, ask yourself what is the mission of that politician? Who is supporting that politician and why? You can be sure that patient safety and quality of care are not in the equation.