Lisa Kenney knows all too well the grave danger posed by medical errors. While undergoing surgery in 1999, a medical error caused anesthetic to be injected into her bloodstream, rather than into the muscle. Kenney suffered cardiac complications and had to be revived by using a cardiac bypass machine.
Kenney now serves as president and executive director of Medically Induced Trauma Support Services Inc., an organization created in 2002 “to support healing and restore hope” to those impacted by unplanned medical outcomes, as Kenney was.
One of four speakers at a panel on medical errors at Health Journalism 2013, Kenney and others stressed the importance of putting precautions in place to ensure that standards are met to avoid medical errors or, at least, to make sure that errors are quickly and properly reported so that they are not repeated.
“In other industries where people are being reckless, there are consequences,” Kenney told an audience of nearly 50 people. “That’s not the case here.”
One way to rectify the problem could be to form a watchdog-type organization, suggested Lucian Leape, M.D., an adjunct professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard University.
“We need to create a federal patient safety association to set standards and get this show on the road,” Leape said.
He noted four dominant reasons why medical professionals and institutions have failed to move faster to eradicating the problems of medical errors. These include:
- Physician resistance. Many doctors aren’t involved in creating systems to get rid of medical errors or to prevent them from happening, mainly because they “don’t see it in their daily life.”
- The difficulty of changing systems.
- The general culture is “dysfunctional” Leape said, adding, “We treat each other badly.”
- In terms of safety, there is a “lack of leadership.”
Geroge Annas, M.P.H., an attorney who serves as the William Fairfield Warrn distinguished professor and chair of Boston University’s School of Public Health, School of Medicine and School of Law, said simply that measures must be taken to eradicate “never events” – mistakes that can truly be prevented.
David Bates, M.D., M.Sc., chief of the division of general internal medicine and primary care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and professor of health policy and management at Harvard University’s School of Public Health offered a three-pronged plan to guide journalists who report on medical errors. Journalists should:
- “Hold our feet to the fire, and when you see something, get it out.”
- Push for transparency to learn the true number of people harmed by medical errors.
- “When we do have something that makes things better, cover that too.
Overall, health professionals can take one small but extremely important step to helping to thwart many errors.
“A good place to start is with washing your hands,” Annas said. “It really matters and should be done” as a measure to stop medical mistakes before they have the chance to begin.