Tragic Case of Hospital Error Refocuses Look at Hospitals

Thirteen-year-old Jahi McMath went in to Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland to have her tonsils removed. Three days after she went in for the routine procedure, she was pronounced brain dead by the hospital authorities. She suffered a coma during the course of the surgery.

Far from being just a place where sick people go to get treatment, hospitals have been and continue to be the environments in which individuals contract viruses and other maladies that are often fatal to them.  For many years medical experts knew it was a problem but did not recognize its full extent. A 1984 study revealed that 98,000 deaths per year occurred as a result of hospital errors. But more recently a study from the Journal of Patient Safety shows that such errors account for about 440,000 deaths per year and many more serious injuries. This means that medical errors constitute the third leading cause of death in the United States.

These deaths and injuries do not have to occur. One of the first steps in mitigating the prevalence of these hospital errors is to identify where and how they are occurring. In the year 2000 hospitals began tracking data on errors caused at their facilities. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began systematically maintaining information on the number and types of errors caused at different hospitals. Their website, Hospital Compare, became a tool for consumers to see which hospitals commit higher rates of errors.  But the data has been shown to be incomplete.  While Hospital Compare effectively lists the prevalence of transmittable infections such as MRSA, it fails to compile data on a lot of common problems caused at hospitals. Several states now, including California, have started to levy fines against hospitals that have high rates of error.

But medical malpractice suits will continue to be an important deterrent to these tragedies. The exposure to liability will incentivize doctors and hospital staffs to follow only the best practices in providing medical treatment in a sanitary environment to patients.  The ultimate goal will be to ensure less repetitions of the kind of tragedy that struck young Jahi McMath and her family this holiday season.


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