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New guidelines address proper disclosure of surgical errors

Guidelines aimed at increasing patient safety during surgery in Colorado and across the country have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Part of the factor in addressing the issue of improved patient safety lies in confronting an established machination of the U.S. medical industry, long characterized by an atmosphere of reluctance by medical specialists and personnel to disclose when a medical colleague makes a mistake.

Surgical errors are an unmistakable reality: Errors and medical mistakes, including improper doses of medicine, surgical equipment left inside a patient, and failure to detect tumors, are currently estimated to cause 440,000 patient deaths in U.S. hospitals annually. This means preventable errors rank third in leading causes of death in America, behind only heart disease and cancer.

Surgical errors may be detected easily and quickly, as in the case of surgical equipment left inside patients' bodies and visible on an X-ray, or they may result in a worsened condition; the surgical error may even become fatal if, for example, a tumor is not detected.

The new guidelines, issued Oct. 30, aim to protect patients by teaching physicians and other medical professionals how to disclose when they see a surgical error occur and by fostering an environment in which physicians can safely admit and apologize for medical and surgical errors. Studies have shown that in the 37 states that allow physicians to apologize for medical and surgical errors without fear of a malpractice suit, the number of malpractice and medical claims costs decreased. However it may take time for the new guidelines to catch on, and many patients may still be left in the dark about errors that directly affect them and their families. For these patients, a medical malpractice claim may be the best option for holding a dishonest doctor accountable and obtaining compensation.

Source: NBC News, "When docs make mistakes, should colleagues tell? Yes, report says", JoNel Aleccia, October 30, 2013

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