Patient Safety Should Be No. 1 Concern

If 20 jetliners began crashing weekly, said a safety expert recently, "There would be a national ground stop. Fleets would be grounded. Airports would close. There would be a presidential commission. The NTSB would investigate. No one would fly until we had solved the problems." You're probably now thinking, "What kind of crazy hypothetical is that?"

It comes from none other than Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the "Miracle on the Hudson" hero pilot who safely landed his plane on the Hudson River in 2009. But Sully wasn't talking about some sort of zombie apocalypse airplane nightmare. Rather, he was drawing an analogy to something far more real -- the carnage happening today, just around the corner at your local hospital.

The latest statistics show that medical errors, most of which are preventable, are the third leading cause of death in America. The cost of injuries to families and to the health care system is likely near $1 trillion dollars annually. This intolerable situation is perhaps all the more shocking because we already know about how to fix much of this. For example, when the labor and delivery unit at NY Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center implemented a comprehensive obstetric patient safety program, not only were catastrophic errors dramatically reduced but also compensation payments fell by 99.1 percent.

Lack of patient safety knowledge isn't the problem. Yet rarely do our laws focus on implementing what we already know. For the past 30 years, policy proposals in the area of medical malpractice have concentrated almost entirely on the "doctor as victim" narrative. The insurance and medical lobbies have effectively turned the malpractice issue on its head, so that policymakers treat medical malpractice primarily as if doctors and their insurers were the victims of it, instead of the hundreds of thousand of patients who wind up dead or injured each year. This is well-reflected in the number of medical malpractice laws that have passed around the country, virtually all of which are designed to weaken the liability and accountability of health care providers. No wonder medical errors continue at epidemic levels.

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