What would health care be like without the civil justice system?
The civil justice system gives families of patients who have died or been injured by medical negligence an avenue to seek accountability. It also drives the development of patient safety systems that help prevent injuries before they occur. Hospitals, health systems, and even entire medical fields have reformed dangerous practices because of the civil justice system. Better patient safety is the key to lower health care costs.
★ MEDICAL ERRORS
The civil justice system not only provides injured patients the ability to hold those responsible for their injuries accountable, but also encourages the adoption of patient safety systems that help prevent injuries before they happen. Specialties like anesthesiology have drastically improved patient outcomes by identifying system failures and implementing comprehensive practice changes. Individual hospital systems have also reduced errors after undergoing comprehensive safety studies. The civil justice system has served as a valuable deterrent to malpractice and a powerful motivator for patient safety.
★ HOSPITAL-ACQUIRED INFECTION
Dickson Clark became infected with the lethal bacterium MRSA after back surgery in Nevada in 2005. The infection led to four years of hospitalizations and surgeries, and then a second superbug infection. Clark died in 2010. Two million hospital patients acquire infections each year, and as many as 90,000 die. In response to civil actions, hospitals have introduced mandatory hand washing programs and other hygiene initiatives.
Arturo Iturralde’s surgeon was in a hurry to complete his spinal surgery, only to discover the titanium rods he needed were not in the operating room. Rather than wait for replacements to be delivered, he instead cut up a screwdriver and inserted the stainless steel pieces into Iturralde’s spine. The screwdriver broke and Arturo later died. It was revealed that Arturo’s surgeon had a history of drug addiction and malpractice. Medical negligence lawsuits are the only way to identify serially negligent physicians like Arturo’s.
When three-month-old Gage Stevens suffered from heartburn and diarrhea, a specialist recommended the anti-heartburn drug Propulsid. Gage died from a cardiac arrhythmia, a side effect of the drug known to its manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson. Three hundred people died from Propulsid while its manufacturer reaped over $1 billion in proﬁts. Litigation highlighted Propulsid’s problems, and the drug was eventually pulled from shelves.
In response to lawsuits, anesthesiologists undertook a comprehensive analysis of common errors. Today, the number of anesthesiology errors has been cut in half, and anesthesiologists pay far lower insurance premiums than before the
analysis took place.
★ ITEM INVENTORIES
Florida judge Nelson Bailey was in excruciating pain following abdominal surgery. For ﬁve months following the operation, he endured repeated trips to the doctor and numerous tests until the source was revealed: a surgical sponge measuring a square foot had been left in his abdomen and rotted part of his intestines. In response to medical negligence lawsuits, hospitals now often take a complete inventory before and after operations to ensure no items are missing.
★ WRONG-SITE SURGERY
After suffering a fall at home, 87-year old Ivory Andrews entered a hospital to have hip surgery. Her surgeon inserted a metal pin and a stabilizing plate, but did so in the wrong hip. The formerly healthy hip became infected, and Andrews was forced to spend the next 45 days in the hospital. Now, many operating teams use preoperative checklists to minimize the chance of a mistake.
★ MEDICATION ERRORS
Many hospitals and pharmacies now use computerized prescriptions and barcoding equipment to decrease the chance
of a medication error.
Originally published in “Why we need a strong civil justice system” by AAJ, June 2014.