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Healthcare Communication Breakdowns Often Cause Medical Malpractice

January 11, 2012

It is a tragic fact of life that medical malpractice exists; stories of incorrect diagnoses, improper prescriptions, failed operations and the like are never out of the headlines for long. Contrary to what we hear in the media, however, medical malpractice does not always fall onto the shoulders of doctors. Very often, hospital staffers and technicians are at fault.

As Michelle Andrews writes in Kaiser Health News, “Sometimes, the ball gets dropped somewhere between the lab or the radiology department and the clinician who ordered the test and the patient.” This is never good news for the patient.

In the case Andrews discusses, a woman’s breast cancer diagnosis was delayed by a year because her test results were sent to a different doctor who happens to share the same last name with her doctor. The patient, Peggy Kidwell, sued in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the case settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

This is such a scary event because of how non-dramatic it is. Mrs. Kidwell was not going to the hospital for invasive surgery, she was not assigned medication that may have painful side effects and she seemed to be in perfectly good health. She was simply going to her doctor for her annual mammogram.

Perhaps even scarier is that this sort of thing is not a rare occurrence: “A recent study in the Journal of the American College of Radiology found that annual medical malpractice payouts for communication breakdowns, including failing to share test results, more than quadrupled nationally between 1991 and 2010, [from $22 million] to $91 million.”

See also
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Article on Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Misses the Mark

Andrews continues, “Of the 306 cases in which test results were specifically cited as a factor in a malpractice case, the most common problem–it occurred almost half the time–was that the patient didn’t receive the test results, cited in 143 cases. The second-most-common problem was that the clinician didn’t receive the results, cited in 110 cases. Other problems included delays and slow turnaround in reporting findings and test results that were filed before the clinician reviewed them.”

The current system of recordkeeping is dangerous for patients and doctors alike. According to a study by the Partners HealthCare system in Boston, their doctors look at nearly 900 different test results in any given week, including blood work, chemical tests and X-rays. On top of this, over half of the doctors surveyed claimed they were unhappy with the way they handled these test results.

Groups like the National Patient Safety Foundation look forward to a future in which technological advances will make patients more involved with their own health records and their doctors electronically, but until that happens, hard work and vigilance are required. A member of this group, Diane Pinakiewicz, explains “The best chance is for the patient to be part of the process.” Be sure to follow the links above for some of the things you can do to protect yourself so that you don’t become a victim of medical miscommunication or avoidable medical errors.


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