The American Medical Association believes it may have discovered a root cause of many medical errors: patients themselves.
The AMA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the AMA, said late last week that the problem of patients not being able to understand, interpret or act on basic health information results in $73 billion in unnecessary health expenses nationwide, and it is developing a program to address the phenomenon.
"We want to continue to improve patient-physician communications, and to enable us to work in partnership with our patients to diminish the effects of low health literacy," said Herman Abromowitz, M.D., AMA Foundation president, in a written statement.
One of the foundation's first steps will be to seek federal funding for research to understand the problem.
The AMA's call to action comes only days after the New York Times revealed and HCFA confirmed a change in federal policy that will require Medicare peer review organizations to tell patients whether their hospital and physician care met "professionally recognized standards" (See story, p. 32).
The AMA fingerpointing at patients also comes shortly after the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations adopted new accreditation standards that will require physicians to tell hospital patients when their clinical outcomes deviated from acceptable norms (Jan. 1, p. 2).
The Institute of Medicine in its 1999 report To Err Is Human identified several causes for hospital medical errors, which claim as many as 98,000 lives in the U.S. every year. Topping the list were shortcomings in practitioner licensing and accreditation, a faulty medical liability system and fragmented delivery systems.
Mike Donio of the Lancaster (Pa.) People's Medical Society supports the AMA's concept of low health literacy. "Every consumer group needs to work to improve communication between the patient and the practitioner," he said.