medical negligence

Preventable Medical Errors Kill Americans at an Alarming Rate*

There is an epidemic that is killing almost half-a-million Americas and injuring millions of others every year.  This epidemic is as bad as the top two killers of Americans, cancer and heart disease (each claiming over 550,000 lives each year), and is far worse than accidents (claiming over 120,000 lives each year).  What makes this epidemic more tragic than the most common causes of death in the U.S. is that these deaths are 100% preventable.

Preventable medical errors kill and injure Americans at an alarming rate.  A new study printed in the Journal of Patient Safety, as reported by Scientific American, reports that “the true number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients was estimated at more than 400,000 per year.  Serious harm seems to be 10- to 20-fold more common than lethal harm.”  This is a problem of epidemic proportions that must be fixed.

When was the last time you heard politicians or lobbyists address how to prevent medical errors?  Probably never.  Rather than publicly address ways to make health care safer, they pollute the airwaves with stories about “defensive medicine” and increased costs associated with “frivolous lawsuits.”  They suggest that doctors are afraid of lawsuits so they order more tests; however, the practical difference is looking for the problem versus taking a wait-and-see approach.  Do you want your cancer diagnosed now or later?

Americans are led to believe that medical negligence suits are an epidemic. However, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the total amount of money spent defending claims and compensating victims of medical negligence in 2010 was $5.8 billion, or just 0.3 percent of the $2.6 trillion spent on health care in the U.S. that same year.  Moreover, if hospitals were practicing defensive medicine, then why do over 400,000 Americans die from preventable medical errors in hospitals every year?

Every 1 minute and 15 seconds someone’s mother, father, spouse, sibling, grandparent, or child needlessly dies in the hospital because of a medical error.  In that same amount of time, 10 to 20 other hospital patients are being injured.  Frighteningly, these statistics do not include victims where the medical negligence occurs outside the hospital.

The epidemic of patient harm in hospitals must be taken more seriously if it is to be curtailed.  This is a pervasive problem that should demand decisive action on the part of providers, legislators, and people who will one day become patients.  Yet, the action and progress on patient safety is frustratingly slow.

The following case demonstrates how an innocent young woman, injured by improper care, was victimized by a hospital system that failed her.

A 26-year-old woman entered a Phoenix-Area Hospital for removal of an ovarian cyst.  The surgery was completed without complication; however, after entering the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU), she had an adverse effect from the anesthesia that caused her to breathe less efficiently.  The anesthesiologist provided Narcan, a medication that blocks the effects of anesthesia and narcotic medications.  Her respiratory drive and vital signs returned to acceptable levels.

While still under the influence of Narcan, the PACU nurse continued to administer narcotic medications—based on the orders the anesthesiologist wrote before the patient ever experienced breathing problems.  The orders were never changed and the nurse never questioned whether it was appropriate to continue giving the patient medications that could cause breathing problems.  Neither provider had significant experience with using Narcan in this setting.

The problem for the patient is that as the Narcan wears off the narcotic medications are able to overwhelm the body, causing deeper sedation and stopping the patient from breathing.  In a groggy state, only 90 minutes after entering the PACU, the PACU nurse sent the patient home with her husband.  The PACU nurse never told the husband about the event that necessitated Narcan, and never warned the husband about the potential adverse effects of the narcotic medications she administered.

The patient’s husband brought her home and settled her into bed to rest, not knowing that she would never wake up.  Her death could have been prevented if any one of the health care providers took steps to monitor her condition for longer than 90 minutes.  They assumed she would be fine.

Sadly, no one has stepped up and admitted to their mistakes.  Instead, the health care providers argue that the husband is to blame because he should never have left her side once they arrived at home.

* This blog should be used for informational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice.


Understaffed Medical Facilities Amplify Medical Errors

If you have ever survived a huge RIF (reduction in force) at your company you know what comes next.  The surviving employees must pick up the slack and do extra work.  Your company is now understaffed.  Without enough employees to do a job, the job cannot be done properly.  This can lead to attitudes like, “this will have to do,” “this was not in my job description,” and “I can’t continue to do everything.”  Short cuts must be taken.  Work quality suffers.  Things get missed.  You are left hoping you do not make a mistake that cannot be corrected.

The health care profession is not immune to understaffing.  Understaffing occurs at hospitals and nursing homes for many reasons.  Owners often intentionally understaff their facilities, short-term and long-term, to boost profits.  Patients do not receive appropriate care.  In the hospital setting it could be health care providers missing signs and symptoms of a serious condition; in nursing homes, it could result in abuse or neglect.  Understaffing is associated with high urinary catheter use, poor skin care, poor feeding, malnutrition, dehydration, and starvation.  Overworked staff tend to rush around, sometimes intentionally skipping certain care needs.  Patients’ conditions are more likely to decline.

In an understaffed facility, expect the unexpected.  Medical errors already plague U.S. hospitals.  These medical errors are magnified and compounded when there are not enough employees to ensure proper patient care.  For instance, a nurse responsible for the postoperative care of a patient might miss subtle signs and symptoms of a respiratory compromise.  Rushing around and trying to accomplish too many things in a short period of time could lead the nurse to assume that her healthy patient will be okay, just like the many other patients before her, without focusing on the patient’s specific situation.  Prematurely discharging the patient under the assumption that things will be fine, without paying attention to the amount of narcotic medication administered, could result in the patient suffering a fatal respiratory failure after getting home.

Sadly, there is no easy way to find out if your hospital or nursing home is understaffed; however, certain tell-tale signs could suggest you need to be concerned.  For instance:

Is the nurse constantly rushing around and not taking the time to thoroughly answer your questions?
Does the nurse appear stressed or anxious?
Does the nurse appear to be cutting corners or not being thorough in her duties?
Is the patient’s condition deteriorating?

If you think understaffing caused injury to you or a loved one, you should call an experienced medical negligence attorney like the ones at Harris Powers & Cunningham (602.271.9344).

Jury Returns $5.875 Million Verdict in Medical Negligence Case

PHOENIX, ARIZONA – Shawn Cunningham, Joseph D’Aguanno, and their hard-working team at Harris, Powers & Cunningham obtained a $5.875 million verdict in a medical malpractice wrongful death case. The Maricopa County jury determined that the untimely passing of a 32-year-old wife and stay-at-home mother of two young children would not have happened but for a series of serious omissions on the part of her health care providers. The jury deliberated for six hours following a two-and-a half week trial.

The general facts are:

On the morning of March 17, 2008, the patient was rushed by ambulance to a local Emergency Department (ED) with severe abdominal pain, bloody stool, and a history of Crohn’s disease. The ED physician evaluated her and ordered a stat CT scan around 8:50 a.m. Around 11:30 a.m., the ED physician learned that the only CT tech on shift fell ill and the stat CT could not be done until the next shift, scheduled for 5 p.m. The patient’s condition continued to worsen and, around 1 p.m., the ED physician decided to have a hospitalist admit the patient to the hospital. Life-threatening surgical issues should have been high on the differential, but neither the ED physician nor the hospitalist called the on call surgeon because they believed he would not see the patient without a CT scan.

Despite receiving pain medication, the patient was in agony. Her condition continued to decline. The CT was not completed until 6:25 p.m. and the results were not communicated to the hospitalist until 7:15 p.m. With the results in hand, the hospitalist contacted the on call surgeon for an urgent, stat, surgical consult. The surgeon ordered conservative therapy and advised he would see the patient in the morning. In response, because of the grave nature of the patient’s condition, the hospitalist pleaded with the surgeon to come in. The surgeon abruptly hung up. Even a call from the hospital’s CEO failed to get the surgeon in that night. The surgeon did not come in and perform surgery until the following morning, but it was too late. The patient was in septic shock and the beginning stages of multi-organ failure. She died on March 19, 2008.

The near unanimous jury verdict made it clear that the health care providers needlessly endangered their patient by failing to comply with simple safety principles — one of which requires physicians to timely diagnose and treat a potentially life-threatening surgical condition. The inability to perform a stat CT scan did not relieve the health care providers of their obligation to protect their patient. The untimely death of this woman — who was a wife, mother, and child — could have been avoided with a simple phone call to the surgeon when the stat CT scan became unavailable or by obtaining an alternative imaging study. The culture at this hospital prevented the health care providers from considering these simple, potentially life-saving alternatives. The omissions of the health care providers put all patients at risk and the jury’s verdict made it clear that such omissions are not acceptable.

The health care providers committed medical malpractice and the jury apportioned 40% of the fault to the on call surgeon, 30% to the hospital, 25% to the hospitalist, and 5% to the ED physician.

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