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Medication Errors: New Research Raises Concerns

While medical mistakes are nothing new, a recent study reached some alarming conclusions about how doctors and hospital employees respond to them when they occur. Research from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that hospitals only notify affected patients in two percent of cases.

Unlike some other categories of medical malpractice, medication errors are less likely to result in serious harms to patients. This does not mean that harms do not occur: 110 of 840,000 surveyed cases resulted in a patient death. The same study found that 98 percent of those 840,000 mistakes did not cause any harm at all.

When the researchers looked closer at ICU mistakes, however, that rate rose significantly to four percent. The study only looked at 56,000 ICU errors to develop this statistic.

How do hospitals respond when caregivers realize that they have made a medication mistake? In more than 50 percent of cases, hospitals did nothing to correct a mistake. Two thirds of hospitals did not even bother to tell the caregiver that he or she did something wrong.

Perhaps the most concerning statistic involves how often patients learn about mistakes. Only two percent of the surveyed errors resulted in a communication to the patient. The fact that this statistic matches the percentage of errors that harm patients may be a coincidence - the study did not say whether these were largely the same group of errors.

This study is just one more reminder that the deck is usually stacked against medical malpractice plaintiffs. Hospitals and doctors have more access to information - to the point that patients might not even be aware that a mistake caused what might look like a mere complication. This is one of the big reasons that it is so important to consult with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer after a suspicious hospital experience.

Source: Chicago Tribune, "Patients rarely told about medication errors," Andrew M. Seaman, Jan. 11, 2013

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