The Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety, a state agency tasked with advancing the safety and quality of health care in Massachusetts, recently released a report on the frequency and cost of medical errors in the state. The report, which medical malpractice lawyers and their clients are sure to find interesting, shows that medical errors are startlingly common in Massachusetts, but also provides reasons for optimism.

Important Findings

The report’s authors estimate that 62,000 medical errors occur in Massachusetts each year, or roughly 170 each day. Almost a third cause serious harm and about 12 per cent involve death. The situation in Canada is also serious. According to a 2004 report on the subject, roughly 70,000 preventable adverse events occurred each year in this country, resulting in as many as 24,000 deaths.

The financial cost of these errors, both in Massachusetts and Canada, is staggering. The Betsy Lehman report estimates that additional medical care necessitated by errors cost $617-million before factoring in malpractice claims and lost income.

Furthermore, the study authors believe their estimates may be low due to under-reporting of injuries caused by misdiagnoses, delayed diagnoses, medication errors, and other mistakes.

“It’s reasonable to conclude that these numbers are actually a significant underestimate of the numbers of errors you would find statewide if you could,” Betsy Lehman executive director Barbara Fain told Boston’s NPR News Station WBUR.

Critically, the report also looked at the emotional impact of medical errors through a survey of 5,000 Massachusetts residents. It found that many victims and their families experienced lasting emotional trauma and diminished trust in the medical system. More than 20 per cent of respondents who had experienced a medical injury in the previous six years remained depressed, and more than one in three avoided medical care. These findings are largely consistent with accounts Ontario medical malpractice lawyers hear from their clients.

Key Takeaways

The report notes that “there has been considerable progress on improving the safety of health care for patients over the past two decades.” However, maintaining the momentum of these improvements will require sustained, collaborative statewide effort.

Communication, both between healthcare providers and between doctors and their patients, is key to improving safety in both Massachusetts’ and Ontario’s healthcare systems. Speaking to WBUR, University of Washington professor Dr. Thomas Gallagher said: “We don’t do a good job in health care of responding to these events and communicating about them with patients. And that just compounds their suffering.”

The Betsy Lehman report found that injured patients whose doctors communicated openly and offered apologies had reduced emotional impacts.

For more information, read the full Betsy Lehman Center report here:

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Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Melanie A. Hutto

Greg Neinstein