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Do patients underestimate the risk of medical error?

When you go into the hospital for surgery, your thoughts are likely focused on the immediate task at hand. You put your trust in the doctors and nurses who attend you, and although you are experiencing anxiety, you are probably comforted by their professionalism and the efficient way they go about prepping you for the operation. However, once the surgery is over, you find to your horror that the surgeon operated on the wrong shoulder. How could this happen?

The third leading cause of death

Operations performed on the wrong body part, including removal of the wrong body part, are among medical errors that are more common than people think. In the United States, such errors rank as the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, replacing respiratory problems. A study that combined error statistics from four sources, including information from the Health and Human Services Department and Office of the Inspector General, indicated that nearly 700 deaths a day in the U.S. could be attributed to medical error.

Not part of national statistics

Hospitals and health care facilities inform the public about the safety protocols they have in place, but they do not broadcast medical mistakes and certainly not the harm they cause. Reports of medical errors are not required by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the information about deaths the agency collects based on billing code data. Medical coding was created to assist physicians by streamlining their billing for medical services; it is not used to collect national health statistics. In fact, no standardized method has been developed for collecting national statistics about medical errors.

Recommendations for change

Researchers believe that in seeking medical care, most patients underestimate the risk of error, and yet if it happens, the harm that results can be devastating. Professionals who perform studies about medical mistakes-those resulting in death, in particular-suggest that a method of standardized data collection is needed. They also believe that death certificates should include a section that asks whether a "preventable complication" may have contributed to the demise of the patient. This might focus more attention on medical mistakes. However, researchers agree on the value of public pressure as an instrument of change.

The many faces of medical errors

In addition to something as horrific as removing the wrong body part, medical errors take many forms: misdiagnosis, technical errors, medication mistakes and failure to prevent injury. If medical errors have come your way, remember that an attorney experienced with medical malpractice cases is standing by to help.

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