Advocates for “tort reform” legislation frequently point to financial savings as a reason to enact rules which limit the legal rights of those hurt by medical negligence.
However, actual analysis of these laws invariably leads to the same conclusion: healthcare costs do not decrease following enactment of tort reform legislation. Not only that, but focus on limiting the rights of those hurt by malpractice ignores an issue that actually does impact healthcare costs: the medical errors themselves.
A 2011 study by Health Affairs lays out the staggering costs associated with the medical errors. According to the Health Affairs study, nearly 45% of all healthcare spending is related to a medical mistake. The main reason for the high percentage of these costs is the high number of mistakes. The data suggests that one in every three hospital admissions result in some form of “adverse event”–a shorthand term usually used to describe medical mistakes or preventable complications.
Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that nearly 2 out of every ten patients admitted to a hospital leave that hospital with a hospital-acquired injury. The same study tracked these rates over a ten year period. They found no improvement in patient safety over that time, with the same number of patients unnecessarily injured at the beginning of the project as at the end.
Bed sores, pressure ulcers and infections are the most far-reaching problem. Upwards of 375,000 cases of bed sores or pressure ulcers were reported in 2008 alone (the year upon which the latest research is based). The medical cost of dealing with these sores was $3.27 billion. About the same amount of money is spent annually to deal with infections following surgery–$3.36 billion. Other costly medical errors include adverse consequences from implants, grafts, back surgeries, and excessive bleeding following various medical procedures.
This latest research is yet another indication of the need for stepped-up efforts to improve patient safety. Not only do all medical patients deserve treatment free of unreasonable errors, but addressing the issue will also pay dividends on the financial front. Much national focus is on reigning in ballooning healthcare costs. This research suggests one overlooked solution: ensuring better health care is provided.
Unfortunately, improvements in patient safety at individual hospitals and on an industry-wide basis are slow going. It has been 13 years since the high-profile “To Err is Human” report from the Institute of Medicine raised awareness of the incredible human costs of medical errors. The report explained how over 98,000 patients died every years as a result of mistakes.
Little has changed since that time. For example, using similar methods as those from the Institute of Medicine study, researchers concluded that over 187,000 patients died in 2006 from serious medical errors. Another 6.1 million patients were injured. The cost of this extra medical care is hard to calculate with precision, but is likely somewhere between $393 billion to $958 billion each year.
Considering the human and financial toll of these medical errors, it is vital for all institutions to do what is necessary to improve care. Accountability measures are needed to identify when errors are made, ensure redress, and demand improvements to prevent repeat occurrences.