A New York Times article today, written by two fourth-year Harvard Medical School students, describes the frightening pervasiveness of medical malpractice in the United States, and the medical profession’s seemingly incorrigible habit of turning a blind eye to it. In my blog post today I will extract the article’s pearls of wisdom, and hand them to you, my reader. If you want the full oyster, shell and all, I highly recommend the full article.
The authors start by summarizing some of the more alarming studies that have catapulted medical malpractice to the headlines in recent years, including the famous (or infamous) Institute of Medicine Report in 1999 estimating that medical errors kill as many as 98,000 people a year, and a more recent New England Journal of Medicine study with similar findings.
Most interesting, though, was the authors’ discussion of recent polls of medical students regarding their experience with medical malpractice. Surprisingly, a poll of third-year students revealed that most students had already witnessed medical errors (and they aren’t even doctors yet!) or had committed errors themselves, but did not know what to do about it, who to report it to, or how to handle it. The system just wasn’t set up to admit, explore, or learn from medical error.
According to the two authors, the message that medical malpractice is out of control has not hit home. In a recent survey of some 391 medical students, four out of five opined that medical school had only, at best, provided a “fair” emphasis on patient safety and quality improvement. According to one medical school professor, there was “still some debate” about how and when to teach patient safety! (I’ve got an idea — how about from day one!)
The medical establishment needs to find a cure to its own blindness, and these young docs just might provide it with a much needed shot in the arm. As fresh-faced, idealistic neophytes to the profession, these authors are positioned to rattle the smug, old-school, doctors-can-do-no-wrong mentality of the medical profession. But here’s how we can really tell whether they stand a chance: How were they received by their colleagues, professors, and senior physicians after this article hit the press? Were they ostracized for “outing” medical malpractice secrets, or were they greeted as dragon-slaying heroes? Hate to say it – but I suspect it was the former.