A culture of silence remains about medical errors, but things are slowly improving, physician-activist says

There has been a culture of silence when it comes to talking about medical errors, but things are slowly changing, writes Dr. Kevin Kavanagh, right, in an op-ed piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Kavanagh, who is chairman of Health Watch USA, recalls an incident in which a patient came to be treated for a severe sinus infection. Upon being rushed to surgery, Kavanagh discovered “an old smelly gauze pack” had been left in the sinus from a previous operation. When an assistant asked Kavanagh what he should tell the patient, “I answered, ‘The truth’,” for which he was disciplined by a senior surgeon.
“Years have passed, and things are starting to change in medicine,” Kavanagh writes. “Telling patients that something went wrong is slowly being accepted — a revolutionary idea to medicine.”
Studies have shown that hospitals with full-disclosure policies actually have lower patient death rates, which Kavanagh just called “common sense.” “If preventable patient harm occurs on a ward and the patient is not told, almost all of the employees on the ward will know about the cover-up,” he writes. “How then will the administration garner the respect to effectively oversee the functioning of personnel? If hospital staff are not performing adequately, how do you discharge them when there are skeletons in the closet?”
Full disclosure also lowers malpractice expenses, Kavanagh contends. Stanford University hospitals had a 36 percent drop in malpractice claims and has saved $3.2 million since it adopted a full-disclosure policy in 2007. University of Michigan had a 40 percent drop in new claims and saves $2 million each year.
But full disclosure is not common in Kentucky, despite the Veterans Affairs hospitals in Lexington being the first to implement full disclosure in the country. “Instead of this practice spreading throughout Kentucky, the next health-care system to implement it was the University of Michigan,” Kavanagh writes.
Things need to change, especially in the face of superbugs like MRSA. As he looked back at the incident involving the botched sinus surgery, “I am most bothered that I apologized for my actions,” Kavanagh writes. “Now I would reserve the words, ‘I’m sorry’ for the patients who have been harmed.” (Read more)
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