Medical Malpractice Claims as Tools to Avoid Medical Errors

“What the Doctor Missed” is a must read for those interested in improving patient safety. The article, which appears on the first page (above the fold) of the Personal Journal section of the Wall St. Journal, recounts researchers’ work in studying medical malpractice claims in order to determine how medical errors and diagnostic mistakes can be minimized.
According to the article, the researchers have found that certain factors can be directly linked to medical errors. The factors include judgment errors, follow-up failures, a lack of knowledge, patient behavior, and delegating tasks to other staff members.
Diagnostic errors remain the leading cause of malpractice claims, comprising 40% of all claims. Such diagnostic errors often involve cancer with breast cancer the most common missed or delayed diagnosis.
The Journal article points out what other research has shown for quite some time-many medical errors are preventable. The researchers found that in cases involving medical error 55% of those errors are due to a failure to order the right test, 45% of errors involve a failure to create a follow-up plan, 42% are due to an inadequate patient history or physical examination, and 37% involve a failure to interpret a diagnostic test. All of these errors are preventable and correctable. Yet, such errors have led Peter Pronovost, a patient safety researcher at Johns Hopkins University to estimate that these diagnostic errors kill 40,000 to 80,000 patients each year.
Some industry professionals believe malpractice cases are symptomatic of a industry-wide problem. According to the WSJ article, “They are reflective of deeply rooted problems that are much more widespread in health care,” says Robert Hanscom, vice president of loss prevention and patient safety for Crico/RMF, a malpractice insurer that covers Harvard University-affiliated hospitals and doctors. Mr. Hanscom says cases linked to diagnostic errors appear to be on the rise as primary care doctors, struggling with heavy case loads, take shortcuts or don’t act on their patient’s symptoms.”