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Alarming and Costly Medical Errors Go Unreported; Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Decline According to Recent Studies

NEW YORK, N.Y., January 5, 2011 — According to a recent study by the Center for Justice & Democracy, our nation’s medical malpractice “crisis” is not a lawsuit crisis. It’s the actual number of instances of medical malpractice in hospitals.

The study reveals that preventable mistakes were linked to medical errors, negligent care, and a lack of proper monitoring of patients. A surprising 1 million Medicare beneficiaries (134,000 patients) were the victims of some form of negligence and/or malpractice in a hospital in 2008. As many as 15,000 beneficiaries died as a result of improper hospital care in one week.

Healthcare System Takes $4.4 Billion Hit Per Year

Medical malpractice and negligent patient care ended up costing Medicare an estimated 3.5 percent of Medicare’s total expenditure for inpatient care in October 2008. To put these numbers in perspective, that 3.5 percent of the $137 billion Medicare inpatient expenditure for in 2009 will equate to $4.4 billion spent on hospital errors that year.

New England Journal of Medicine (November 2010)

According to a November 2010 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, a statewide study of hospitals in North Carolina found that harm resulting from medical care was common. According to the report, only 9.1 percent of hospitals in the United States have implemented a system for even basic electronic record-keeping and tracking. Another critical situation that leads to doctor and nurse error is excessive work hours. Even compliance issues such as hand washing are poor in many medical centers.

Hearst Magazine Investigative Report

In September 2010, an investigation by Hearst Newspapers revealed that most states fail to report medical errors. Even those states with mandatory programs miss a majority of the harm 75% to 95% of the time.

Despite claims to the contrary by big insurance companies, the National Center for State Courts reports that medical malpractice claims continue to decline every year in the USA.

Breast Cancer Screening Saves Lives

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that despite the frightening incidence of death in New York City from breast cancer (1,260 women a year die from the disease), almost 25 percent of women over 40 years of age in New York City don’t get regular mammograms.

Mammogram screenings are recommended by the NYC DOHMH every 1-2 years for women 40 plus, particularly for those women who have someone in the family who has had breast cancer. For those women, the NYC DOHMH suggests they speak with their doctor about when to start screenings and how often to get screened. Treatment of breast cancer at an early stage has shown to reduce death.

Robin Gray: Nurse and Breast Cancer Survivor

Robin Gray’s story, featured in The New York Times, is a good example of why Women owe it to themselves, in fact, their lives might depend on how persistent they are with their doctors. Robin Gray’s story (below) is a reminder of the critical need for women to educate themselves about the prevalence of doctor error when diagnosing breast cancer.

Robin Gray was a 38-year-old registered nurse who found a lump in her breast. She was examined by her doctor, but similar to countless other women, she experienced a delayed diagnosis of breast cancer, 17 months altogether. Her tumor grew and became aggressive. She required more rigorous surgery and chemotherapy as a result of the delay.

Robin talked to a New York Times reporter about her ordeal.

Q: How did you figure out you were misdiagnosed?

A: I had several physicians give me opinions based on the tests I took: mammograms, breast ultrasounds, and a biopsy of the lump. I found out later, with the help of my personal injury lawyer, that a lot of mistakes were made in the testing. For starters, my surgeon relied too heavily on an aspirate biopsy. He didn’t bother doing more definitive core needle, or excisional, tests. I later learned that my initial breast biopsy was positive. When I finally found out my biopsy was misread, my DCIS, or pre-cancer (see description of DCIS, which follows this story) grew large and spread. I eventually settled a medical malpractice lawsuit out of court.

Q: Your story sounds familiar.

A: More than 10,000 women are misdiagnosed with breast cancer every year. Many are young and not taken seriously at first by their physicians due to age bias. Doctors, who should know better by now, often delude themselves into thinking breast cancer is an older woman’s problem. When a woman my age or younger complain of problems, cancer is often summarily ruled out and not all the correct tests are done.

Q: You survived. Congratulations. What now?

A: Women need to speak out. They need to help raise awareness of breast cancer in young women, in all women for that matter. I wrote a book about it: “Breast Lump What Lies Beneath.” Doctor-related breast cancer misdiagnosis in young women is an epidemic. I hope reading my story will help save lives.

What is DCIS?

  • DCIS is not cancer, despite the fact, the word “carcinoma” is embedded in the acronym.
  • Doctors refer to DCIS as stage 0 or noninvasive breast cancer.
  • DCIS is not a single entity, although the description implies the abnormal cells have not crossed the boundary of the breast duct and have the capacity to become invasive.
  • As many as 65,000 women were diagnosed with DCIS in 2009 and another 1 million are projected to have the diagnosis in 10 years, according to the NIH.
  • Most patients with the diagnosis of DCIS are given just two treatment options: undergo a mastectomy or a lumpectomy followed by as long as 6 or 7 weeks of 5-days-a-week whole breast radiation as well as 5 plus years of some kind of anti-estrogen therapy.
  • Women should always request a second review of their biopsy slides from a board-certified pathologist before they decide on a treatment course. It’s best if the pathologist works at a major breast cancer center.

Breast Cancer Drug May Also Protect the Heart

According to a recent article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology — which has gotten a great deal of attention this week in the general consumer media — the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen, when taken for five years instead of two, not only protects women better from breast cancer recurrence, it also may shield some women from cardiovascular disease.

Researchers at the University College London Cancer Trials Center studied 3,449 women between the ages of 50-81 with early-stage breast cancer, comparing the effects of 5 years vs. 2 years consecutive use of Tamoxifen. Fifteen years after the women first began taking Tamoxifen, for every 100 who took the drug for five years, nearly six fewer women had a recurrence of breast cancer compared to those on the two-year regimen. In addition, the longer treatment course reduced the risk of breast cancer developing in the opposite breast by 30 percent.

Surprisingly, the effect on heart disease among women 50 to 59 years old was even stronger. Those who took the drug for 5 years had a 35 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease, and 59 percent fewer women died from cardiovascular problems. The effect of the drug on older women was too small to be statistically relevant.

Medical Malpractice Reform: The Verdict Is In.

By Paul Simonson

A Health Policy Report, which appears in the April 21, 2011 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, confirms what malpractice lawyers have always believed: so-called medical malpractice reform does little or nothing to increase patient safety.

The report, written by Allen Kachalia, M.D., J.D., and Michelle M. Mello, J.D., Ph.D., concludes that as a result of the repeated, unsuccessful attempts by big insurance companies to weaken laws that protect patient’s rights, the discourse about medical liability has shifted from controlling liability costs to enhancing patient safety and reducing waste in health care.

This is very good news for patients. The Insurance Industry has fought for years with one goal in mind — reduce insurance costs for health care providers. Lost in the battle was any focus on what the real effort should be: reduce liability costs by improving patient safety.

The report points out that by encouraging non-traditional public-policy reforms, “new approaches to medical-injury response are now being tested that may bring us closer to a liability system that fosters, rather than obstructs, progress toward safe and high-quality health care.”

One of the most important features of our American medical malpractice justice system is to encourage doctors and hospitals to deliver safe care. And when they don’t, face a jury of their peers. The liability system, by holding health care providers accountable, should result in fewer malpractice events and higher quality care. By simply focusing on reducing the cost of insurance, the health care providers have neglected to adopt safer systems.

And the U.S. Congress seems to agree. Pending approval of recent legislation, Congress has authorized $50 million for states and health care systems to test new approaches to the resolution of medical-injury disputes. According to the NEJM report, this authorization would supplement the $23 million that the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) awarded in 2010 for projects to advance new approaches to medical-injury compensation and patient safety.

Evidence, not opinion or spin, shows that all attempts to limit awards or reduce attorney fees have not yielded improvement in health care. Today, the pressing need to improve quality and efficiency in health care mandates that any liability reform also is evaluated on the basis of clinically relevant metrics, not, as the opponents of tort reform would have it, to simply increase insurance industry profitability and place caps on damages and thereby reduce the incentive for doctors and hospitals to practice safe medicine.

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