Learning from History: Using Medical Malpractice Claims to Prevent Medical Errors

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Hospitals, doctors and insurance companies are taking a cue from generations of parents who have advised their children to "learn from their mistakes." By studying past medical malpractice lawsuits, insurers and health care providers are learning common patterns in medical cases and creating programs to help reduce future medical mistakes.

Medical malpractice claims represent only a fraction of all medical situations and cases, but "they are reflective of deeply rooted problems that are much more widespread in health care," said a spokesman with Crico/RMF, a malpractice insurer providing coverage to hospitals affiliated with Harvard University.

Diagnostic Errors

Forty percent of medical malpractice lawsuits are caused by diagnostic errors. As primary care doctors have increasing case loads, they may take shortcuts or overlook a patient's symptoms, causing them to miss, delay or incorrectly diagnose. According to the Wall Street Journal, the most common diagnostic error involves cancer - with breast cancer often being misdiagnosed or diagnosed after it is already in a late stage. A patient-safety researcher at Johns Hopkins University estimates that 40,000 to 80,000 hospital patients die due to physicians' diagnostic mistakes each year.

Error Preventing Program in Action

Insurer Kaiser Permanente already has an educational program in place that uses information from medical malpractice claims. The program tracks patients with abnormal test results and provides a follow up. According the Wall Street Journal, Kaiser's program has found cancer in 450 patients over the last 15 years that otherwise might have been missed.

Programs implemented by some health care providers use electronic alerts and reminders to follow up on lab reports and with clients, to order tests and to touch base with specialists to whom they have referred patients. Electronic alerts can be problematic, however, because doctors may get too many of them and not follow up. The Veterans Health Administration is trying to combat this problem by developing a program to help doctors monitor and follow up on abnormal lab results.

Source: What the Doctor Missed