Six out of every seven, or 86% of all hospital medical errors affecting Medicare patients go unreported. In exchange for the ability to receive Medicare funds, hospitals have a federal obligation to track and report patient harm. The Department of Health and Human Services performed their own investigation into the accuracy of those reports. It turns out that they are failing. Miserably.

Ten years ago, the Institute of Medicine’s groundbreaking report “To Err is Human,” revealed that there were as many as 98,000 deaths per year from preventable hospital errors. That doesn’t include other types of errors, which can cause lifelong permanent injury like cerebral palsy or Erb’s palsy.

Prior reporting in 2010 showed that 27% of Medicare recipients were subject to hospital errors requiring additional treatment. That means over one and a half million hospital mistakes are made every year while treating Medicare recipients. Because unknown problems don’t get solved, the Department of Health and Services did additional research to find out why hospitals were not self-reporting the vast majority of their mistakes.

Why Are Hospital Errors Underreported?
The study found that these errors are underreported because hospital staff either do not fully understand what constitutes patient harm, or they simply fail to report events that they knew were reportable. the study revealed:

Further, hospital staff reported only 2 of the 18 most serious events in our sample (i.e., those events that resulted in permanent disability or death). Serious events not captured by incident reporting systems included hospital-acquired infections, such as a case of septic shock leading to death; and medication-related events, such as four cases of excessive bleeding because of the administration of blood-thinning medication that also led to death.

Of the 86% of unreported events, 62% were because hospital staff did not believe they were reportable. Of that 62%:

  • 12%: Event not caused by perceptible error
  • 12%: Event was an expected outcome or effect
  • 11%: Event caused little harm or harm was ameliorated
  • 9%: Event was not on hospital’s mandatory reporting list
  • 8%: Event occurs frequently
  • 5%: Event symptoms became apparent after discharge
  • 4%: Event occurred in patient with a history of similar events
  • 2%: No reason given

The other 25% of unreported events was because staff simply failed to report an event that they knew was reportable. So, one-quarter of the time health care providers cause harm or death to a Medicare patient at a hospital that was preventable and avoidable, the health care providers purposely choose not to report it. That is just wrong. This also further reinforces the importance of being your own advocate at hospitals, because if you don’t, you know the hospital won’t.

Hospitals are going to have to step up their game. In the health care community there is a great deal of concern about “frivolous lawsuits” and the costs associated with paying out medical malpractice claims. Lawsuit costs are a minute fraction of the costs associated with these preventable hospital errors, which require more hospital time, supplies and care. If we are serious about improving patient care and saving taxpayer money, this is where we should be looking to solve problems.

How does this study relate to non-Medicare patients?
It’s hard to say exactly what this study and these statistics mean for non-Medicare patients. It could be that non-Medicare patient errors are underreported exactly to the same degree as Medicare patients. Or, it could be that the demographics of most Medicare recipients (older, perhaps having more hospital admissions and medical problems) means that this population has a higher quantity of underreporting. Whatever the answer, it is not a boost of confidence for hospitals.

Do all of these errors constitute medical malpractice?
While these errors may each be medical malpractice, not all of them rise to the level of a medical malpractice lawsuit. If a loved one is in the hospital, make sure someone is there to act as their voice when they cannot – to be their advocate to provide better care so that preventable mistakes are not made, and if they are, to make sure the hospital takes appropriate steps to help the patient. Our personal injury attorneys handle physician and hospital malpractice cases when those errors cause significant or permanent injury. If you or a loved one has been harmed by malpractice, contact us at (888) 213-8140, or online for a free consultation. If we take your case, we become your advocate and your voice to hold those responsible accountable.