Medical Mistakes and Negligence Have Devastating Effects

The numbers are staggering: Medical experts estimate that each year, nearly 200,000 people die in the U.S. because they were subjected to medical errors or preventable hospital-acquired infections.

Newspapers and newscasts regularly feature stories of patients who are victims of serious errors in judgment or appalling indifference or negligence. In August, the San Francisco Chronicle published an in-depth series of articles highlighting a number of such stories, including that of Michael Ray Lee. The University of California Berkeley neurobiology student had surgery to install an anesthetic pump near his spine in 2006. His attorney, Steven Brewer, told the Chronicle that Lee suffered "a chemical burn of the spinal cord" during the procedure because the Oakland hospital's pharmacy had delivered a dose of the anesthetic bupivacaine that was 10 times more powerful than what the physician had ordered.

Before the procedure was to be repeated in 2008, Lee personally checked the dosage of bupivacaine to be administered. Shockingly, the dosage was again 10 times more powerful than ordered. The injury to Lee's spinal cord causes him severe, unremitting pain.

Lee's lawsuit ended with a confidential settlement.

Brewer relates another disturbing account of malpractice: A 52-year-old woman underwent a biopsy for suspected breast cancer. During the procedure, tissue was removed to establish whether the cancer had spread beyond the breast, which would determine the type, amount and duration of any chemotherapy necessary. The tissue was lost and as a result, the woman was required to undergo treatment for metastatic cancer even though there was no medical proof that the cancer had spread.

In yet another case, an uninsured, 50-year-old man was brought by ambulance to a hospital emergency room with trouble walking. It was discovered he had a spinal abscess that required immediate surgery. The neurosurgeon on call refused to see the patient and suggested he be sent to another facility for the emergent surgery. Transfer to another hospital never occurred. Five days later, the man was unable to move his arms and legs. He was operated on by another surgeon at the same hospital. Regrettably, too much time had passed and the man never recovered function of his arms and legs.

These kinds of tragedies are too common. Unfortunately, they are becoming more so, rather than less. In a 2008 report to Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services said preventable medical injuries are growing annually by 1 percent.

Even with so much at stake, it is difficult for patients to find information on the number and types of errors at specific hospitals. While a few states have mandatory reporting systems, California's system is in development but remains incomplete.