As a Fort Lauderdale medical malpractice lawyer, I was pleased to see an article in the Wall Street Journal showing that at least one Florida hospital is actively taking steps to reduce its rate of medical mistakes. The Aug. 24 article focuses on the experience of the Sosa family of Miami, whose six-year-old daughter, Kaelyn, was left permanently brain-damaged when she was just 18 months old. Kaelyn’s mother, Sandy Sosa, took her to the emergency room after a bump on her head. Hospital staff sedated Kaelyn and put her on a ventilator to help her breathe while she underwent an MRI. Unfortunately, the tube connecting Kaelyn to the ventilator was knocked out, and hospital staff didn’t notice until Kaelyn’s brain was starved of oxygen, leaving her with serious physical and mental disabilities.
The Sosas decided not to file a Miami medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital, which agreed to provide free medical care for life to Kaelyn. But in response to that and other mistakes, the hospital, Baptist Children’s Hospital, departed from the typical hospital strategy after a serious mistake -- silence intended to prevent lawsuits. Instead, the Wall Street Journal said, Baptist Children’s openly admitted its mistake, apologized and worked hard to learn from it in order to reduce similar mistakes in the future. In fact, Sandy Sosa now serves as the community liaison for the hospital’s committee on quality and patient safety.
According to the article, the strategy seems to work. The University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, which also has an aggressive policy of learning from patient safety mistakes, said it was sued 40% less between 2004 and 2009 than it was between 1999 and 2004, even though it is performing 23% more procedures. More importantly, its policies on patient safety seem to produce fewer mistakes. For example, after hospital employees left a sponge in a patient after surgery, the hospital made a policy of X-raying all patients at risk for “retained objects,” even if a count of the objects turned up no discrepancy. In three years, this policy has turned up eight patients with an object left in their bodies after a manual count found no missing objects. All of that is despite the fact that, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Quality and Management, medical errors are actually increasing by about 1% each year.
As a Boynton Beach medical malpractice attorney, I have to chuckle at the article’s apparent conclusion -- that owning up to mistakes and taking corrective action seems to reduce medical malpractice lawsuits. Of course aggressive corrective action reduces lawsuits -- it reduces the medical mistakes that cause those lawsuits, and shows families that the hospital is serious about patient safety. In my experience, patients and their families do not look for reasons to sue; a lawsuit is a long and often emotionally difficult process with no guarantee of success.
Rather, medical malpractice victims go forward with their legal claims because medical mistakes can be extremely expensive to treat, and to prevent the same tragedy from befalling other families. For example, the physical therapy Kaelyn gets for free could cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. This article suggests that hospitals could save a lot of money in the long run -- and more importantly, thousands of lives -- by learning from their mistakes and treating injured patients with honesty and inclusiveness.