What To Do When You’re Harmed By a Medical Error


Rodney Warner
Rodney Warner

Between 210,000 and 440,000 Americans die each year due to medical mistakes, according to an article in Scientific American. This would make medical mistakes the third leading killer of Americans after heart disease and cancer. If we split the difference and say it’s 300,000 people, the carnage is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every three to four days.

According to a Newsweek article,

A 2010 government analysis found that 134,000 Medicare beneficiaries were suffering adverse events every month, many of which were “clearly or likely preventable.” A separate five-year study of North Carolina hospitals, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 2010, showed that, in 25 percent of all admissions, the medical care harmed patients. And a study published in Health Affairs in April 2011 revealed that the standard methods hospitals use to detect medical errors fail over 90 percent of the time.

The public interest group ProPublica is publishing a series of articles on patient safety. The latest article lists suggestions for those harmed by medical mistakes (my pet peeve is preventable infections). They include:

1. Get a copy of medical records. You have a right to get a copy of your records and they may document how and why the mistake took place, and who is responsible.

2. Report the incident internally. Accredited hospitals must conduct internal investigations of serious medical incidents. Make sure your version of the incident is part of the investigation.

3. If the patient (hopefully not you) has died, have an autopsy performed. An autopsy may be the best way to determine the cause of an unexpected death. If the local coroner won’t perform the autopsy the family may need to pay the pathologist for the procedure. If you’re considering legal action against a medical provider, an autopsy is a necessity.

4. Consider calling an attorney. I worked as an attorney, worked in a firm that did medical malpractice cases and I know a couple doctors. The attorneys complain how difficult medical malpractice cases are to prove and doctors complain about how many medical malpractice cases there are. The hurdles to a successful medical malpractice case vary from state to state. Like every area of law, medical malpractice has become a specialty. Try to get a referral from an attorney you know and trust. Talk to at least one attorney who specializes in medical malpractice.

5. Meet with the doctor and hospital officials. Because of the fear of medical malpractice lawsuits, don’t expect much to be accomplished or disclosed, but it’s worth a try. You may want to obtain legal counsel first. If the discussion is considered settlement negotiations to resolve potential legal action, the disclosures by the hospital couldn’t be used as evidence so they may be more willing to talk about what happened and why. Ask what will be done to prevent this problem from happening again to other patients.

6. Report the incident to regulators, who can investigate. Regulatory action will probably be pretty mild but will create a paper trail. Providers could be cited or fined and required to create a program for improvement. If the incident was serious enough, or one of series of incidents, there may be limits put on a doctor’s practice or he or she may be barred from medical practice.

Medical professionals are human beings and are fallible just like everyone else. The problem with just letting mistakes slide is that it makes it more likely others will suffer the same problem in the future.