Receiving medical treatment involves a lot of trust that your doctor knows what he or she is doing and will only recommend and perform appropriate treatment. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Medical malpractice occurs when a doctor makes a mistake and a patient comes to harm as a result.
In the past, medical malpractice was considered to be an uncommon occurrence. However, recent studies demonstrate that medical malpractice is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Cancer of all types and heart disease are the second and first leading causes of deaths, respectively.
According to one study, medical malpractice causes 250,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. Another study estimates that the number is even higher, closer to 440,000 deaths.
What Accounts for the Discrepancy?
It is difficult to count the number of deaths that occur due to medical malpractice because of the way that records are kept. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compile and release statistics on medical malpractice based on data collected from death certificates. Unfortunately, medical malpractice is rarely listed as the cause of death. In these cases, what gets noted on the certificates are the effects of the malpractice, when the actual cause of death is a system failure or human error.
Since doctors are liable for malpractice, it makes sense that they wouldn’t list it on the death certificate. It would essentially amount to an admission of guilt. In addition, doctors may be under professional pressure not to acknowledge how widespread the problem of malpractice is. Obviously, it reflects badly on the profession.
There have been efforts in some health care facilities during recent years to acknowledge that malpractice occurs and try to analyze the underlying causes in an attempt to prevent future incidents. This is vastly preferable to ignoring the issue. Nevertheless, many facilities and health care systems seem reluctant to face the problem head-on. Researchers who performed the studies have been trying to encourage a change in the way the CDC collects malpractice data to help raise more awareness.
What Can Patients Do?
Patients have an active role to play in their own care, and participation may help encourage a better outcome. It can help to have a family member or trusted friend come along to your appointment to help you understand the information you’ve been given. You should always feel free to ask questions of your doctor, whether invited to do so or not. If you are uncertain about the diagnosis, you should always feel free to seek a second opinion.