Medical Malpractice: The Most Underreported Cause of Death in the U.S.?
If a tree falls in the forest but no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? And if medical malpractice causes a death but goes unreported, did it really happen?
In the case of the tree, the answer is no: sound waves must strike an eardrum or recording device to make a sound. But in the case of fatal medical malpractice, the answer is, of course, a heartbreaking “yes.” Failure to record a mistake in hospital records cannot erase the real and permanent effects of that mistake on the people left behind.
By definition, unreported medical malpractice events are hard to measure, as there is no official documentation. How, then, do we know that they happen, and that an adverse medical outcome was due to a medical mistake rather than an unavoidable complication? The answer is that medical professionals aren’t the only ones paying attention.
Family-Reported Errors Often Go Unreported
Not all of us are fortunate enough when we are in the hospital to have a family member at our side paying close attention to our treatment. Children, however, are more likely than most patients to have a family member in their hospital room most of the time. Parents have a vested interest in their children’s treatment — and they pay attention.
A 2017 Reuters report looked at research involving parents of hospitalized children. The researchers asked parents about mistakes that were made in their children’s care as well as other adverse events. The researchers also surveyed doctors and nurses who cared for the children on a daily basis, as well as reviewing the children’s medical charts and the hospital’s incident reports.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rate of medical errors detected was higher including parental reporting than without it — 16% higher. Doctors and nurses also reported similar error rates. Medical errors are defined as preventable adverse events. But nearly half of the errors reported by family members — 49% — were not documented in the children’s official medical charts.
Even more shocking, the rate of errors reported by observant family members was five times that documented in hospital incident reports. Many of the errors may have been minor, not rising to the level of medical malpractice. But the report raises the question: if this many medical errors are happening and going unreported when people are watching, what is being documented when only medical staff observe an error?
Why Are Medical Errors Going Unreported?
There are a number of reasons why medical errors and other adverse events (like infections or medication side effects) go unreported. One of the more benign and common reasons is that staff on duty does not perceive an event as an adverse event. Obviously, though, that excuse for non-reporting doesn’t hold water when an error is glaring (like a dangerously high dose of medication).
Unfortunately, there are many other reasons that medical errors go unreported in hospitals, most of them not as innocent. One of them is an increase in the volume of work and fewer workers to do it, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical professionals are exhausted; the demand for increased productivity means that hospitals and their employees may cut corners. Eventually, that will catch up with them in the form of increased medical errors.
Now, take that environment and add in a fear of retribution. In order for nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals to report errors they witness, they need to feel safe in doing so. Unfortunately, many hospitals have failed to create an environment that encourages professionals to do the right thing and protects them when they do. As the situation stands, many professionals are rightly concerned that if they report an error made by a colleague, their colleague will do the same to them. Given the pressures under which many care providers are operating these days, they may reason that it is not a matter of whether they will make an error, but when.
Determining if a Medical Mistake Was the Cause of Death
It can be difficult to know if a loved one’s death in the hospital was caused by a medical error. An unexpected outcome, especially a death, does not necessarily mean that there was a medical mistake, but an unexpected outcome is one of the more common signs of medical malpractice. If you have concerns that a family member’s injury or death was caused by medical error, you owe it to yourself to find out the truth.
Medical malpractice attorneys have experts and resources at their disposal that can make it easier to uncover the truth about medical mistakes. If you believe that you or a loved one was the victim of medical malpractice, we invite you to contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.