New guidelines have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine encouraging doctors to talk to colleagues directly when they observe an error in medical treatment. The Journal also set a standard for when and how to disclose such mistakes to patients.
It is estimated that medical errors kill 440,000 people each year in U.S. hospitals, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. Mistakes like misdiagnosis and errors in medication are everyday occurrences.
Addressing the problem has been difficult, in part because of a health care culture in which doctors do not admit their mistakes — sometimes because they fear it will be used against them in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Additionally, doctors often fail to report or correct their colleagues’ mistakes. The lack of communication when something goes wrong is a major issue for patient safety.
The new guidelines acknowledge that patients have the right to a full account of any problems that occur during their treatment. Patients who are harmed by mistakes should be able to learn the facts about what happened without resistance from the hospital.
Hospitals that have implemented programs to help doctors report one another’s errors say that incidence reports have gone up. That is a positive, promising development, as medical errors are believed to be severely underreported. This shift may be part of a changing culture that recognizes the value of acknowledging mistakes. 27 states, including Illinois, now provide that doctors may apologize for errors without the fear that the apology will be used against them in medical malpractice lawsuits.