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I recently read an article in the Bloomington Herald Times about medical error reporting. According to the article, Bloomington Hospital reported only two errors in 2007, while Monroe Hospital did not report any errors within the last year. Hospitals reporting clear medical errors to state agencies has become mandatory. This is a very good thing because the information can be used to both track performance of various medical facilities, and to work on improvements to hospital protocols in order to prevent future incidents. And, while I would love to believe that only two acts of malpractice occurred in our local hospitals in 2007, the statistical probability of this is so low that I think we need to talk about it.

Since Jan. 1, 2006, all hospitals and surgery centers in the state have had to report 27 types of preventable errors each year to the state health department, which then publishes them on its Web site — The 2007 errors are expected to appear on the Web site in the next two to three weeks.

Included in the list of errors that must be reported are operating on the wrong body part or wrong patient, leaving a foreign object in a patient, and using a wrong drug that results in death of disability.

My primary concern with this story is that it seems to significantly underestimate the likely number of acts of malpractice. There are numerous studies that suggest the rate of medical errors are much, much higher nationally. Several reputable sources, including various federal agencies have found that preventable medical errors cause over 90,000 deaths in the United States every year. Addressing the reality that preventable medical errors occur, and occur more often than we would like to admit, is extremely important so that we can identify the cause of the errors and prevent future ones from occuring.

As many as 98,000 Americans still die each year because of medical errors despite an unprecedented focus on patient safety over the last five years, according to a study released today

First, not all acts of medical negligence get reported. In fact, most do not. All hospitals in Indiana, like Bloomington Hospital and Monroe Hospital are required to report medical errors that fall within specifically enumerated categories, but the individual physicians are not required to follow such reporting requirements. In fact, physicians only report medical errors if they voluntarily admit to having committed malpractice, or are found to have committed an act of malpractice by a judge or jury.

Second, there are many instances where a medical mistake can occur but not be reported. For example, a physician or hospital staff member may not think they have committed an error, when in fact they have. Also, its quite possible that a physician or hospital staff member simply chooses not to report the incident.

A Harvard study has estimated that medical malpractice occurs in one percent of patients who receive medical care. Assuming these numbers are correct, literally, one in one hundred patients each day, in every hospital and clinic suffer from a medically negligent act. Using this statistic, the probable acts of medical malpractice in our local hospitals are likely considerably larger than two acts during all of 2007.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not picking on hospitals or physicians. My brother-in-law is a board certified family physician, my mother has worked as a physical therapist for over forty years. As far as our local hospitals, my son was born at Bloomington Hospital and I couldn’t have asked for better care for my wife and child. I just believe that it is important to address the reality that medical negligence occurs far more frequently than the article in the Bloomington Herald Times would suggest. After all, the whole point of disclosing medical errors is so that they can be prevented in the future.

If a person finds themselves the victim of a medical error, its important to know the law. Indiana has very strict state laws that govern most medical malpractice claims. First, in most instances, the injured party or their surviving family has to file a claim with the Indiana Department of Insurance. Then, the case is eventually reviewed by a panel of three physicians who review evidence that is submitted to them by both the patient’s attorney and the attorney for the doctor or hospital. The panel then determines whether, based on the evidence they have reviewed, they believe malpractice occurred. Once the panel has reached its conclusions, then the claim can be filed in state court.

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