New Report Reveals the Financial and Human Cost of Medical Errors in Massachusetts

Even here in Boston, where our hospitals are second to none, preventable errors persist in every facet of health care.

medical errors

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Mistakes happen. But it’s when mistakes recur, can be prevented, or are not reported and learned from that they become a much more serious concern. Never is this more apparent than in the health care industry. And unfortunately, recent research reveals medical errors continue to happen, with not enough being done to mitigate them.

The results of a series of studies on medical errors conducted in the Commonwealth were revealed in a report released today by the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety. In the first study, the center analyzed health insurance claims to estimate the excess costs associated with harm caused by medical errors in 2017. The other was a survey conducted by phone with over 5,000 households where members experienced a medical error, detailing the physical, emotional, behavioral, and financial impacts those medical errors had.

There were 62,000 cases of preventable mistakes that lead to harm on the patient recorded throughout the study. And over $617 million in excess health care insurance claims resulted because of those cases. The worst part? That’s a severe underestimation, because common errors such as medication and diagnostic error cannot be identified through health insurance claims data.

One in five Massachusetts residents reported experience with a medical error, two-thirds of the people surveyed were not satisfied with how their health care providers communicated the situation to them, and after incidents like these occurred, about 66 percent of respondents said they did not trust the health care system anymore. And not only do these errors directly affect the patient, but the families of patients reported experiencing long-lasting emotional health issues like depression, anxiety, and anger.

Even more, nearly 40 percent of patients and families in the survey observed routine care or events they were not pleased with and did not report them to anyone because they didn’t believe it would do any good. Which begs the question: How are we supposed to advocate for our health when we’re so conditioned to trust health care professionals?

It’s also worth noting, as explored in Boston’s longread, the Secret Truth About Boston Doctors, that health care providers, administrators, and regulators rarely feel empowered to flag and act against bad doctors. So who is really looking out for our best interests, if not ourselves and our loved ones?

Hospitals and health care in Boston are regularly ranked some of the best in the country, but we are not unique in the challenges that we face when it comes to patient safety and preventable errors. To mitigate these problems and address the findings in this report, the Betsy Lehman Center is creating a forum called the Health Care Safety and Quality Consortium that will manage a process to develop a “Roadmap to Safety and Quality” for the state. It will set up initiatives under four pillars of elements for patient safety: transparency, culture, learning systems, and support for patients and providers.

But the biggest thing you can do is to advocate for your health and for the health of others. Meaning, if something doesn’t look or feel right, speak up. It does make a difference.