The daunting task facing healthcare providers is to create systems that can better identify, track, evaluate and prevent medical errors without enhancing the ability of malpractice parasites to unduly profit from a more-open communications process.
Achieving that goal will not come easily. With Bill Clinton digging in his populist heels, the medical-errors dilemma is destined to become entwined in the rhetoric of the Patient Bill of Rights and other partisan squabbles.
Yet it's crucial that hospitals, health systems and physicians not duck the issue. Much more is at stake than the cost of implementing a tracking system or potentially higher insurance rates. The plain truth is that the image of healthcare providers hangs in the balance.
Providers' credibility and reputations have plunged since cost containment and managed care disrupted the once-cozy fee-for-service cottage healthcare business. Avoiding further image erosion will require providers to rally around a medical-errors strategy that puts patients ahead of protocol, protectionism, embarrassment and fear.
Healthcare managers should support a system that encourages the reporting of errors and the timely analysis of how to avoid similar mishaps in the future. Information and statistics must be shared with peers and the public. Surgeons and their support staff should meet before and after an operation to discuss the procedure. Providers, insurers and patient groups should determine whether the more-frequent use of autopsies could shed insight into medical errors.
In return for their commitment to create a culture better equipped to deal with medical errors, providers should expect peer review confidentiality and other legal protections.
Although the trade-offs seem risky, there's a greater gamble in having a mandatory reporting system with no safeguards rammed down the throats of providers. You can bet that topic will be seriously discussed in Congress and on the campaign trail.