Why Are Hospital Mistakes Still All Too Common in 2016?
It’s no secret that America’s healthcare system is riddled with problems, but one wouldn’t necessarily expect general negligence to be among the most common.
Unfortunately, in 2016, hospital mistakes are a tragically common event, as several recent high-profile cases would seem to confirm. Before investigating those cases, let’s take a look at the general state of affairs and the possible culprits behind this problem that doesn’t seem to go away.
The Blame Game
Generally speaking, it seems a bad idea to let profit hold sway in any system intended to look after the public’s welfare, but that’s precisely what America has let happen to medicine in general. As we see with nearly any other industry, the practice of medicine has been caught in a kind of race to the bottom: Hospitals don’t have enough beds, enough nurses or enough doctors. And the staff they have on hand is, as a result, terribly overburdened.
The Conservative-minded among us might point to the Affordable Care Act as a potential culprit. Millions more Americans (20 million more, to be exact) now have healthcare since the ACA was passed. As a result, doctors’ offices and hospitals are now seeing waves of new patients who haven’t seen the inside of a physician’s office in years. This obviously places a burden on our already overtaxed healthcare system, but unless you’re truly dead inside, you also recognize this as a positive development: More Americans are getting the care they need.
Errors, Large and Small
The growth also paves the way for many more errors to be made in a place where errors can cost lives. We’re not talking about the poor handwriting type of error — we’re talking about misdiagnoses or the incorrect dispensing of medications. We’re talking about unnecessary amputations. There’s really no end to the horrors possible when hospitals and hospital staff are taxed beyond their capacity to administer treatment mindfully.
Take, for example, perhaps the worst example of medical malpractice in recent memory: a Pennsylvania woman’s loss of her two unborn twins. The $4.25 million settlement followed a failure by hospital staff to monitor the woman for a condition called preeclampsia, which resulted in a seizure and the loss of the woman’s two 33.4-week-old babies.
As far as medical malpractice goes, this is known as gross negligence, which is typically defined as “a major error in judgment” made by a supervising physician. Thankfully, not every example of medical malpractice is as serious as the cases named above — but that’s still of little comfort to the patients whose conditions are made worse by distracted doctors or a lack of resources.
At the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, for example, the biggest culprit behind medical errors is a little less sensational: unsanitary conditions. Less sensational doesn’t necessarily mean less serious: As reported by the Boston Globe, mistakes as mundane as placing dialysis units too close to the patient can cause rogue drops of blood to be carried to other parts of the hospital and to other patients — even into open wounds.
As a whole, Massachusetts saw a 60 percent rise in preventable medical errors, for a total of 1,313 errors in total in 2015. At Baystate alone, 575 patients had to be notified of a potential exposure to infection.
A Tale of National Priorities
There are many types of American heroes, but we seem to worship the wrong sorts. We fetishize wealth creators and the soldier’s willingness to wade into combat zones, but we forget about soldiers on the front lines closer to home: American doctors and nurses. We’re going to continue seeing errors until resource allocations and nurse pay is commensurate with both the effort required and the stakes involved.
How much longer can profit hold sway in American medicine? Maybe we’re an election cycle away. Maybe we’ll be one more election cycle away for another 100 years. Who can say? The point is that until we’re honest with ourselves about why our healthcare system is so wretched, and recognize what thousands of doctors all across the country are saying about it, we’re not going to make any progress. That’s right: 2,000 American doctors are calling for single-payer healthcare.
This wasn’t intended to turn into a political screed, but one can’t discuss medicine in the US without pivoting inevitably to the single-payer debate. Those on the Right might bemoan what they’d characterize as the government “meddling” or “seizing control” of healthcare in this country, but the fact remains: Government remains accountable to informed citizens in a way that private, for-profit insurance and medical corporations never will be. Our sick and injured deserve something better than botched treatments and ignominious deaths: casualties in a monomaniacal race for a better bottom-line.
Will shifting toward a public option and/or a single-payer healthcare system eliminate errors in hospitals? Of course not, but it’s not hard to imagine the benefit of eliminating the middle-men in the equation — insurance companies, among others — who create nothing and contribute nothing.
Health insurance — now a $900 billion industry — is not the remedy we need for what ails us.