Malpractice deaths, injuries may be more common than previously believed

Research suggests preventable “never events” and deaths resulting from malpractice are more common than past studies indicated.

Many people in Maryville, Tennessee, do not think twice about the possibility of hospital errors or negligence when they entrust their care to medical professionals. Sadly, though, recent research indicates that medical malpractice could be a substantial threat to public health. The number of needless errors and resulting injuries or deaths may be much higher than researchers and medical professionals previously believed.

Shocking statistics

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported that as many as 98,000 people die annually from preventable medical mistakes, according to Scientific American. This figure is alarming enough on its own. However, in fall 2013, new research suggested that between 210,000 and 440,000 annual deaths result from substandard medical care. This would make malpractice one of the top causes of death in the U.S., outstripped only by cancer and heart disease.

Many hospital errors are not minor, understandable mistakes, either. A John Hopkins study published in late 2012 found that surgical "never events," or mistakes that simply should not occur under any circumstances, occur more than 4,000 times a year. According to a study press release, some examples of never events are:

  • Leaving foreign objects inside a patient's body. This occurs an estimated 39 times per week.
  • Operating on the wrong site or body part. This happens an estimated 20 times per week.
  • Performing the wrong procedure. This also occurs an estimated 20 times a week.

These errors are especially disturbing because hospitals often have procedures in place to prevent them, according to the same source. Surgical checklists, marking of the surgical site and mandatory "timeout" periods before operations aim to prevent needless errors, yet never events still occur at an alarming rate.

When such blatant and negligent mistakes occur, patients or their family members have the right to seek compensation through a medical malpractice lawsuit. Sadly, statistics show that a dwindling number of people in Tennessee are exercising this right.

Tennessee malpractice claims

Following legal reforms made in 2008, the annual number of Tennessee malpractice lawsuits has fallen by 36 percent, according to Chattanooga's Times Free Press. Critics contend that changes made under the reforms make it harder for malpractice victims to seek justice.

The reforms established a $750,000 cap on non-economic damages, which are awarded for non-quantifiable losses or pain following a personal injury. This cap may deter more victims or attorneys from pursuing claims. The reforms also established stricter certifying standards; now, attorneys must prove experts have evaluated and supported a victim's claim before a lawsuit can even be filed. The legal changes additionally made standards for filing stricter, increasing the likelihood of lawsuits being thrown out.

Still, these hurdles do not mean victims should give up on justice. Tennessee's damages cap is among the higher caps established in any state, according to the Times Free Press. Furthermore, certain circumstances merit exceptions from the cap. For example, after caretakers at a Chattanooga hospital tried to cover up medical mistakes, the victim was able to file a malpractice lawsuit seeking $25 million.

Considering the changes to state laws and the new challenges involved in filing a malpractice lawsuit, anyone who has been harmed by poor medical care should meet with an attorney. An attorney can help a victim evaluate whether a malpractice lawsuit is the right choice given the injury and the surrounding circumstances.

Keywords: medical malpractice, surgical error, personal injury