When it comes to medical errors, there's more than enough blame to spread around the (non)continuum of care.
Sloppy paperwork, frazzled support staff, sound-alike drug names and careless clinicians are just a few reasons the medical-errors mess has reached crisis proportions. As hospitals brace for the latest Institute of Medicine missive on medical mishaps, the American Medical Association has taken the risky move of saying patients need to take more responsibility to prevent errors.
The first IOM bombshell, a late 1999 report titled To Err is Human, claimed that medical errors in hospitals lead to as many as 98,000 patient deaths annually. The AMA, the American Hospital Association and other healthcare groups swallowed hard and acknowledged that lax licensing, a faulty medical liability system and fragmented delivery of patient services were major contributors to the frightening situation.
An AMA Foundation study says providers alone can't fix the problem. It says patients who can't understand or follow basic health information are menacing quality-improvement efforts and generating $73 billion per year in unnecessary medical spending.
Most provider groups are reluctant to address low health literacy out of fear that the effort will be misinterpreted as a criticism-deflecting tactic. But the AMA claims the goal of its ongoing effort in this area is to enhance communication between patients and caregivers.
In fact, one of every three Medicare patients is believed to lack the health literacy skills to understand instructions for prescriptions and medical forms and physician instructions for self-care. Patients with low health literacy are more likely to suffer from poor health status or become the victim of a medical error because they don't understand the illness or the treatment.
Making headway against medical errors will require firm commitment from all links in the healthcare chain. Providers must admit and analyze mistakes. Patients must be told if their clinical outcomes deviate from acceptable norms. The liability system needs to offer more safeguards for a free flow of information about medical errors.
Equally important is that patients assume more responsibility for their own healthcare.