Johns Hopkins’ Landmark Medical Malpractice Study

Johns Hopkins University recently released a study identifying total malpractice settlements and judgments between 1990 and 2010, their costs to the healthcare system and the outcomes of patients. Medical malpractice attorneys are concerned about the frequency of surgical errors in the United States, and would like to highlight the major findings of this study.

Researchers examined data from four categories of surgical errors: objects left inside patients, operating on wrong body parts, performing the wrong procedure, and operating on the wrong person. These are deemed ‘never events’ because they should never occur in correct practice. Surgical errors are increasingly being used to determine the quality of health care in the United States. This study, the first of its kind, was designed to describe the amount and severity of malpractice claims for surgical errors, along with associated patient and provider characteristics.

Using information from the National Practitioner Data Bank, researchers identified over 9,700 relevant malpractice settlements and judgments, totaling $1.3 billion. They found that in these cases, fatal errors occurred in over 6% of patients, permanent injury in nearly 33%, and temporary injury in almost 60%. It was estimated that more than 4,000 surgical errors occur every year in the U.S., and, troublingly, that over 12% of physicians named in malpractice cases were later named in at least one other error claim.

The patient safety researchers estimated that surgeons leave foreign objects in patients (such as a sponge or surgical instrument) an average of 39 times a week. Additionally, surgeons perform the wrong procedure 20 times a week, and surgeons operate on the wrong body part 20 times a week. Researchers believe that their estimations are likely to be on the lower side, as not all victims of such events pursue medical malpractice lawsuits.

Identifying the problem and documenting the magnitude of such events is an integral component of developing better, more efficient health care systems. There are certain errors in the medical field that are not preventable, such as infection rates. The four categories examined in this study, however, are occurrences for which there is universal professional agreement that they should never happen and are entirely preventable. This study illuminates an alarming problem and the immense need for improved safety and regulation.

These surgical errors occur most often in patients between the ages of 40 and 49. Surgeons in this same age group were responsible for more than a third of these mistakes, compared to surgeons 60 and older, which accounted to little more than 14%. An astounding 62% of doctors were cited in more than one individual medical malpractice report.

Many medical centers employ mandatory ‘time-outs’ before surgical procedures to ensure medical records and surgical plans match the patient on the operating table. Other regulations in place to prevent surgical errors include counting surgical instruments, using indelible ink to mark operation sites on the body, and surgical checklists. These methods are aimed at reducing the number of surgical errors, but they are far from fool-proof, as proven by the Johns Hopkins study.

Current guidelines request that hospitals voluntarily report surgical errors to the Joint Commission that assesses hospital safety and practice regulations. The study leader, Martin Makary, states that this does not always happen. Makary is an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and serves in leadership roles at the United Nation’s World Health Organization, and the International Union of Risk Management.

Medical malpractice attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm commend the efforts of the Johns Hopkins University patient safety research team. We hope that this study leads to the development and implementation of methods and procedures designed to reduce errors. If you or someone you love was injured due to negligence, you have important rights, and should seek legal consultation immediately.

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