A Medical Enron

A scathing article appeared in the December 9, 2002 issue of the Washington Post, that compared the mismanagement and meltdown of Enron, to the medical profession's inability in reducing the rate of medical errors in hospitals. These errors, according to an Institute of Medicine study three years ago, kill between 44,000 and 98,000 patients annually while injuring perhaps 1 million more.

The article states that reforms are "scandalously slow" and that asking the medical profession to regulate themselves has been ineffective. The article states that the sources of errors are various including, mixing up patients' X-rays, or looking at them upside-down; as a result, they operate on the wrong patient or the wrong body part. Additionally, cleanliness was an issue as doctors and health workers fail to follow basic hygiene procedures such as washing hands or changing gloves therefore causing infections that account for thousands of deaths a year.

Wrong prescriptions are also one of the biggest problems leading to injury or death. Yet nationally only about 3 percent of hospitals have instituted computerized prescription systems, which would greatly reduce these types of errors. The article noted that there is a national system for reporting medical errors, but it is voluntary, so few errors ever get reported. A few states have mandatory systems, but most still do not.

The one place that the article did say had embraced changes and reduced risk significantly was the government run Veterans hospitals. The article concluded with comments and recommendations that included some degree of accountability and government oversight. They stated, "So long as patients have no way of finding out which hospitals are unreliable, bad hospitals will face minimal incentives to invest in the solutions that could drive error rates down. State or federal regulators should require the reporting of errors and should make some of this information public. Otherwise thousands will continue to die needlessly and with no one held to account."