Asbury Park Press

Don't Conceal Medical Errors

Asbury Park Press — Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Editorial

If consumers are granted access to safety information about the cars they buy and the amusement parks they patronize, why can't they be told which hospitals have the fewest number of preventable medical errors for certain procedures?

There is no satisfactory explanation for why the state Department of Health and Senior Services compiles a list of the total number of preventable medical errors committed by hospitals resulting in serious harm or death to a patient, but refuses to let the public know which hospitals made the mistakes. In fact, in the most recent state survey, 10 hospitals in New Jersey failed to file error reports. The state won't even disclose which 10 refused to provide the information. A total of 1,550 preventable errors have been reported since February 2005, resulting in 99 deaths.

Anyone faced with the choice of deciding where to have elective surgery, give birth or undergo a critical procedure deserves such basic information. But in New Jersey, which ranked dead last in hospital safety in a 2006 national study conducted by the Colorado-based health-care ratings organization HealthGrades, patients do not have that right. According to the HealthGrades' report, making that knowledge public saves lives. Minnesota, which requires public reporting of errors by individual hospitals, ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in hospital safety.

The New Jersey chapter of AARP is pressing hard for such detailed reporting. AARP officials correctly believe medical professionals will be more likely to take a minute to double-check a patient's blood type or which leg is to be operated on if they know their hospital will be held accountable in the public eye for preventable errors.

Health department and hospital officials counter that such stringent reporting rules will only discourage doctors, nurses and hospitals from coming clean with their mistakes. That's not the attitude of caring and concern one might expect from medical professionals. State regulations need to be rewritten to mandate disclosure of medical errors – and there must be harsh penalties imposed on hospital administrators, doctors and nurses who fail to report them.

In addition, state Health Commissioner Heather Howard should establish a toll-free hotline that would allow patients and medical professionals to report medical errors and initiate a Web-based medical error reporting system that supersedes the current fax-in system, which lacks confidentiality.

The secrecy needs to stop. Full disclosure must be standard operating procedure in our hospitals.

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