Hospitals That Mess Up Are Urged to Confess

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by: John Tozzi

Medical errors in U.S. hospitals kill tens of thousands of patients each year, and even more suffer injury because of mistakes by doctors or nurses. Not every case of harm is avoidable—patients may get an infection even if doctors do everything they should. But when hospitals are at fault, most of the time they never tell you.

Afraid of getting sued, they deny wrongdoing, hide information from patients or families, and exclude them from internal investigations. Hospital staff review the events in private conferences. Sometimes they send reports to third-party safety groups, but those, too, are privileged. This means attorneys for the injured or the families of patients who died can't get them.

Patients usually get compensated only if they can persuade a lawyer their case is good enough to take. Then comes the arduous, expensive, and emotional fight to prove the medical professionals, despite what the Hippocratic oath says, did some harm. If the hospital's lawyers see too much risk, they settle. If not, they go to trial.

This is how it works now. For years, a few doctors and hospital leaders have been trying to change this by bypassing the judicial system. They contend honesty in the event of mistakes can reduce hospital liability and improve safety by throwing light on an opaque internal process. Recently, the federal government threw its weight behind the idea, publishing detailed guidelines for hospitals that want to adopt this more open way of dealing with medical errors.

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