Those who enter the legal profession often do so because they want to make a difference in the world. Becoming a lawyer gives one the opportunity to see big-picture issues crippling a community or society and do something about it. While focusing on wining justice for one victimized party, attorneys simultaneously expose and confront a prevailing problem that would otherwise continue unopposed. We will look at one case example that demonstrates how lawsuits helped to generate positive change in healthcare safety.
In the case we will discuss in this article, researchers used lawsuit data to isolate mistakes anesthesiologists commonly made during surgery, then leveraged that data to make improvements which resulted in fewer medical errors. Our hope is that this scenario can continue to be repeated across every branch of the healthcare field as a whole.
Success in Anesthesia Safety: A Study
Anesthesia as a medical treatment has long been under scrutiny for the dangers it poses to patients. Beginning in the 1940s and 50s, there arose an initial awareness within the medical community of anesthesia dangers, given highlighted attention with the famous 1954 Beecher and Todd report on deaths associated with anesthesia. But awareness did not lead immediately to change. Up into the 1980s, it was estimated that although anesthesiologists constituted only 3% of physicians, anesthesia lawsuits resulted in 12% of medical liability insurance payout, according to the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation (APSF). From anecdotal and research-based evidence, it was clear that anesthesia-related harm and deaths were disproportionately high compared to other types of medical malpractice.
The fact that anesthesia does not cure any illness compounded the need for a safety revolution. Anesthesia is not in itself a therapeutic procedure. Rather, it is an adjuvant, or supplementary, treatment supporting invasive curative efforts like surgery. As such, administering anesthesia needs to be as safe as possible, so patients do not face unnecessary risk from a procedure that provides no health benefits.
Significantly, analysis began to show that it was not the anesthetics (drugs used to produce anesthesia) that were the main problem. It was the way they were administered by anesthesiologists, and the way patients were monitored while under anesthesia that led to complications. One major way this was discovered was through medical malpractice lawsuits directed against negligent anesthesiologists. Analyzing the data brought forth in these legal cases gave medical researchers insight into the common errors made by physicians and how to prevent them.
In light of the information disclosed through medical malpractice lawsuits, safety improvement efforts have been directed largely toward the process by which anesthesia is delivered and the errors that can occur during a procedure. Based on awareness of this major issue exposed through litigation, actions taken to improve anesthesia safety have included the following:
- Better technology and controlling methods to improve oxygen flow
- Advancements to existing medical equipment
- Standardization of critical components of machines used in anesthesia delivery
- Enforced safety procedures to maintain and check equipment before use
- Improved monitoring techniques, including pulse oximetry and capnography
- Better system for labelling and color coding syringes
- Establishment of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), an organization which creates guidelines and standards and oversees reporting systems
- Publishing of performance standards
- A difficult airway algorithm designed to anticipate difficult airway management
- Regular analysis of incidents of anesthesia injury or fatality
- Enhanced education, training, and length of residency for anesthesiologists
- Innovative training methods, such as full-scale simulations
- More thorough evaluation of a patient’s overall condition at time of anesthesia
In consideration of all available evidence, it appears that the risk of injury and fatality relating to anesthesia is significantly decreasing. Thanks to the endeavors of conscientious researchers, practitioners, and litigators, real progress has been made in an area once fraught with preventable fatality.
After examining one specific example of a medical field improved through legal efforts, let’s look at the broader issue of medical malpractice. In this way, we can ask how we can collectively continue moving forward toward optimum patient safety.
The Current Crisis of Medical Malpractice
Anesthesia is not the only medical practice in need of safety reform. Fatality resulting from medical error or accident is the leading cause of accidental death in the nation—and the third leading cause of all death, following heart disease and cancer.
The excessive amount of certain medical malpractice claims indicates that several areas of healthcare are subject to an overly high number of medical errors. The most common medical malpractice claims include:
- Delayed diagnosis
- Prescription drug and medication errors
- Childbirth injuries
- Errors in surgical procedures
- Failure to treat
- Dental malpractice
- Anesthesia errors
- Failure to prevent or treat post-operative infection
- Nursing home neglect or abuse
Continuing Toward Optimum Patient Safety
Healthcare harm cannot be corrected in a single action, but through smaller, consistent, intentional, studied steps. Change can come from within the health care industry, from government regulation, from outside funding, from partnering with external organizations, and from litigation aimed toward reformation.
Part of a medical malpractice attorney’s duty is to recognize the role they play in shaping healthcare change. Complete system redesign demands immeasurable amounts of funding, time, and new thought leadership. But we are optimistic that there are many paths to achieving improved overall patient safety. Some of these methods include:
- Setting definitive goals and positioning efforts toward achieving them
- Standardizing rules and regulations
- Creating better reporting systems
- Engaging patients deeply in their own healthcare
- Establishing more accountability for healthcare providers
- Improving technology and medical equipment
- Thoroughly tracking and analyzing patient outcomes
- Improving affordability and access to care
- Committing to healthcare equality
- Better regulating high-revenue procedures
- Collaborating with outside organizations
- Devoting attention to patient-focused care
- Promoting transparency
- More effectively allotting and taking advantage of available funding
As personal injury lawyers well-familiarized with medical malpractice cases, it is gratifying to see examples of improvement in healthcare safety. We have an ongoing commitment to using our position as litigators to bring attention to facets of our society that can be made better. If you have questions, our firm of Jackson, MS medical malpractice lawyers is ready to answer them. Reach out to schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys.