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The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would victimize medical malpractice victims and protect the health care providers who injured them.  If there is a silver lining in all this, it might be that H.R. 1215 passed by the slimmest of margins.  But I am not comforted by this.  Not until the U.S. Senate slaps some sense into the U.S. House.

I could go on all day about the frequency with which people are injured by medical malpractice.  I could go on all day about the numerous victims who cannot find a lawyer to take their case because the ultimate recovery will barely cover litigation costs.

Please don’t delude yourself into believing there are doctors lining up to gratuitously provide their expert services to these victims.  Expert fees are the largest cost of medical malpractice cases, usually driving the total costs of these cases over $125,000 and, in some cases, as high as $250,000.

Oh, and please don’t delude yourself into believing doctors who commit medical malpractice, or their liability insurers, are rushing to settle cases before costs pile up.  I have a case with clear negligence that is now in its third year of litigation because of the scorched-earth defense.

Let’s discuss a typical case that occurs all across the United States and see the impact of H.R. 1215.

A 60-year-old retired husband, and father of two, goes into the hospital for a routine thyroid surgery.  The surgery goes well, but a blood vessel is mistakenly cut and left open.  Postoperatively, the husband’s neck is swelling.  Blood is collecting in the limited space available in the neck.  His doctors and nurses do not intervene as he suffocates from the collection of blood crushing his windpipe.  His family watches helplessly as he suffocates to death.

Since the husband was retired, there is no lost income.  Since he died, there are no future medical bills.  So, the family is limited to grief and suffering from the loss of their loved one.  H.R. 1215 would limit the amount the wife and her two kids can recover to $250,000, regardless of how many doctors and nurses were negligent, regardless of the egregiousness of their conduct.

H.R. 1215 would limit the attorneys’ fees to around $75,000 (which ends up being around $150/hr–about half of what the defense lawyers are paid!).  Therefore, even if the litigation costs are kept low, at $100,000, the wife and kids would collect $75,000.

Let that settle in.

The wife loses her husband of 30+ years, the two kids lost their father, and collectively the three of them have to split $75,000.

Does that sound fair?

There is an epidemic that is killing almost half-a-million Americas and injuring millions of others every year.  This epidemic is as bad as the top two killers of Americans, cancer and heart disease (each claiming over 550,000 lives each year), and is far worse than accidents (claiming over 120,000 lives each year).  What makes this epidemic more tragic than the most common causes of death in the U.S. is that these deaths are 100% preventable.  Preventable medical errors kill Americans at an alarming rate.

Preventable medical errors kill and injure Americans at an alarming rate.  A recent study printed in the Journal of Patient Safety, as reported by Scientific American, reports that “the true number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients was estimated at more than 400,000 per year.  Serious harm seems to be 10- to 20-fold more common than lethal harm.”  This is a problem of epidemic proportions that must be fixed.

When was the last time you heard politicians or lobbyists address how to prevent medical errors?  Probably never.  Rather than publicly address ways to make health care safer, they pollute the airwaves with stories about “defensive medicine” and increased costs associated with “frivolous lawsuits.”  They suggest that doctors are afraid of lawsuits so they order more tests; however, the practical difference is looking for the problem versus taking a wait-and-see approach.  Do you want your cancer diagnosed now or later?

Americans are led to believe that medical negligence suits are an epidemic. However, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the total amount of money spent defending claims and compensating victims of medical negligence in 2010 was $5.8 billion, or just 0.3 percent of the $2.6 trillion spent on health care in the U.S. that same year.  Moreover, if hospitals were practicing defensive medicine, then why do over 400,000 Americans die from preventable medical errors in hospitals every year?

Every 1 minute and 15 seconds someone’s mother, father, spouse, sibling, grandparent, or child needlessly dies in the hospital because of a medical error.  In that same amount of time, 10 to 20 other hospital patients are being injured.  Frighteningly, these statistics do not include victims where the medical negligence occurs outside the hospital.

The epidemic of patient harm in hospitals must be taken more seriously if it is to be curtailed.  This is a pervasive problem that should demand decisive action on the part of providers, legislators, and people who will one day become patients.  Yet, the action and progress on patient safety is frustratingly slow.

The following case demonstrates how an innocent young woman, injured by improper care, was victimized by a hospital system that failed her.

A 26-year-old woman entered a Phoenix-Area Hospital for removal of an ovarian cyst.  The surgery was completed without complication; however, after entering the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU), she had an adverse effect from the anesthesia that caused her to breathe less efficiently.  The anesthesiologist provided Narcan, a medication that blocks the effects of anesthesia and narcotic medications.  Her respiratory drive and vital signs returned to acceptable levels.

While still under the influence of Narcan, the PACU nurse continued to administer narcotic medications—based on the orders the anesthesiologist wrote before the patient ever experienced breathing problems.  The orders were never changed and the nurse never questioned whether it was appropriate to continue giving the patient medications that could cause breathing problems.  Neither provider had significant experience with using Narcan in this setting.

The problem for the patient is that as the Narcan wears off the narcotic medications are able to overwhelm the body, causing deeper sedation and stopping the patient from breathing.  In a groggy state, only 90 minutes after entering the PACU, the PACU nurse sent the patient home with her husband.  The PACU nurse never told the husband about the event that necessitated Narcan, and never warned the husband about the potential adverse effects of the narcotic medications she administered.

The patient’s husband brought her home and settled her into bed to rest, not knowing that she would never wake up.  Her death could have been prevented if any one of the health care providers took steps to monitor her condition for longer than 90 minutes.  They assumed she would be fine.

Sadly, no one has stepped up and admitted to their mistakes.  Instead, the health care providers argue that the husband is to blame because he should never have left her side once they arrived at home.

* This blog should be used for informational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice.