Medical malpractice in U.S. hospitals is the sixth leading cause of death in America. The Wall Street Journal recently published an essay by Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon, Dr. Marty Makary, that espoused the idea that transparency in the medical profession might stem the tide of these avoidable deaths.
The statistics show that "Medical errors kill enough people each week to fill four jumbo jets." Think about that the next time you are on a cross country flight. The equivalent of every person on that plane will die within two days because of preventable medical errors. The value of these lives to their families is incalculable. Putting aside the needless deaths, avoidable medical errors cost the U.S. health care system tens of billions of dollars a year.
The commentary to the essay was striking. Many doctors defended the profession, some arguing "medicine is not black and white" and that "doctors give opinions...and people die." No one expects their doctors and nurses to be perfect, but there is the reasonable expectation that health care providers will not needlessly endanger their patients. Providers should take ownership of their patient's care and focus on safety. The nuclear power industry places a great deal of focus on safety culture, encouraging open discussion and continuing evolution of safety. Everyone works together to avoid errors. The last major nuclear event in the U.S. was in 1979, at Three Mile Island; although there have been some minor events since. The underlying cause of these events was a weak safety culture. Plants now teach that safety should always be the overriding priority. Everyone is responsible for safety, decision-making reflects safety first, and everyone maintains a questioning attitude.
The irony is that nuclear power plants will shut down their reactors for events that might harm the public; yet, we tolerate hospitals and doctors that have harmed patients and continue to present a risk of harm to the public. When was the last time you saw local media publish statistics on Arizona hospitals' rates of infection, readmission, surgical complications, or avoidable errors? Sadly, hospitals and doctors are empowered to hide behind the "peer review privilege." This allows the health care providers to perform an investigation of injurious events in secrecy. Not even the patient who was harmed, or his family members, are entitled to know the results of the investigation.
Dr. Makary has the right idea. More open dialogue about medical errors, not less, should encourage hospitals and doctors to improve their practices. We shouldn't be forced to guess which hospitals are safe, especially when choosing where to have surgery or deliver a baby. It is time that Arizonans come together in the name of patient safety and demand that our lawmakers remove the secrecy and lift the peer review protections. Lawmakers have the ability to establish a safety culture that could drastically reduce the number of avoidable medical errors. One day, only a few passengers on that plane will die from medical errors because the health care providers made the decision to focus on patient safety above all else.
Read more about our medical malpractice work here.