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Medical Mistakes go Unreported by Many Doctors

Jan 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Doctors are not very good at reporting medical mistakes.  Unfortunately medical mistakes are a big problem  - in the 1999 U.S. Institute of Medicine report, To Err Is Human, an estimated 100,000 Americans deaths are tied to a medical mistake.

The majority of doctors surveyed as part of a recent study conducted by Dr. Lauris Kaldjian, associate professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, admitted that while they are willing to report medical errors, many don't.  "There is a gap between physicians' desire to report errors and reporting of errors," said Kaldjian who studied 338 doctors from teaching hospitals nationwide.  The report is published in the January 14th issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

While 73 percent of the doctors said they would disclose medical errors that caused minor medical harm—and 92 percent said they would report an error that caused major damage, such as death or disability—only 18 percent said they reported minor errors; four percent said they made a major error and reported it.  Worse, 17 percent acknowledged making a minor error and not reporting it, while four percent indicated making, but not disclosing, a major error.  Kaldjian said, "We found that only about 55 percent of the respondents knew how to report errors," adding that "Only 40 percent knew what kind of errors should be reported."

The findings confirm previous research, said Dr. Thomas Gallagher, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington who has conducted numerous studies error handling by the medical profession.  "The gap comes from a number of areas.  Physicians are unfamiliar with the reporting process and their role in it.  And a fair number of physicians are not certain how the process works.  More important, physicians often are skeptical about whether reporting will have an impact on the quality of medical care that they would like it to."  More feedback from hospitals when an error is reported could improve the situation, Kaldjian said. "It is all the more important that hospitals be clear about why they have this reporting system and how the information from it will be used," he said.

Meanwhile, another recent report by a Washington D.C.-based consumer advocacy group feels more work is needed to make the public aware of the those doctors who are repeat offenders in the medical malpractice arena.  In addition to recommending improvements in patient safety and healthcare providers training, the report stressed the importance of disciplining repeat offenders.  Unbelievably, only 33% of the medical doctors who made 10 or more malpractice payments were disciplined by their state medical board and some doctors—with as many as 31 medical malpractice payments—have never been subjected to any disciplinary action.  To make matters worse, a new survey suggests nearly all doctors do not turn in their less-than-ethical colleagues, indicating disconnects between what doctors say is the right thing to do and what they actually do.  In a survey of over 3,000 doctors, over 90 percent of those responding—nearly half—said physicians should always report an impaired or incompetent colleague or when they witness a significant medical mistake.  But, 45 percent said they hadn't always done so.

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