Require Full Transparency and Disclosure of Hospital Harm and Medical Errors

Make public reporting of medical errors and harmful incidents mandatory.

One of the alarm­ing facts about the epi­dem­ic of hos­pi­tal harm is that too many providers do not, and/or are not required to, report med­ical errors, harm­ful inci­dents or even deaths as a result of break­downs in patient safe­ty. In fact, a report pre­pared by the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices’ Office of the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al (OIG) in 2012 found that 6 out of every 7 hospital‐based errors, acci­dents, and oth­er adverse events still go unre­port­ed.  Yet patient safe­ty experts rec­og­nize that dis­clo­sure of errors and trans­paren­cy in hos­pi­tal prac­tices is crit­i­cal in cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing an informed health­care pub­lic that can prop­er­ly assess the risks to their health, and in cre­at­ing a cul­ture of patient safe­ty as a result.  

Time and again, patients and fam­i­lies who encoun­tered med­ical harm report expe­ri­ences of decep­tion and stonewalling by the health­care providers involved.  Often, infor­ma­tion was not dis­closed before the harm occurred (for exam­ple, the risks asso­ci­at­ed with a par­tic­u­lar drug) or there were efforts to cover‐up what actu­al­ly hap­pened.  More gen­er­al­ly, too many hos­pi­tals hide behind a wall that deprives the pub­lic of impor­tant infor­ma­tion which they need to make informed deci­sions about their care and about the per­for­mance of their health­care facil­i­ties.  In every case, when a cur­tain of opaque­ness is allowed to sep­a­rate med­ical facts from those affect­ed, the health­care safe­ty of every­one is placed at risk.

The Cen­ter for Patient  Pro­tec­tion notes that in one land­mark case with which it is famil­iar, an elder­ly Cana­di­an patient was sub­ject­ed to more than 4,000 doc­u­ment­ed med­ical errors at two Cana­di­an hos­pi­tals over the course of a con­tin­u­ous six‐month hos­pi­tal­iza­tion.  This is a record for med­ical errors in a hos­pi­tal set­ting which has no par­al­lel in patient safe­ty lit­er­a­ture.  

Yet the hos­pi­tals involved, includ­ing one of Canada’s most promi­nent teach­ing cen­ters in Toron­to, denied that a sin­gle error ever occurred and insist­ed that all care was “appro­pri­ate.” And although the fam­i­ly involved nev­er com­menced or threat­ened legal action, both hos­pi­tals resort­ed to lawyers to con­duct their com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Regret­tably, in 2014 the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion dis­con­tin­ued a new require­ment for the report­ing of cer­tain med­ical errors and infec­tion rates in U.S. hos­pi­tals, which had come into force only a few months ear­li­er under The Afford­able Care Act.  Patient safe­ty experts fear what was start­ing to emerge was a pic­ture that indeed con­firmed the true scope of the epi­dem­ic of hos­pi­tal harm.  Health­care lob­by­ists moved to pre­vent the real facts from com­ing to light.

In Cana­da, hos­pi­tal report­ing of med­ical errors is gov­erned by a patch­work quilt of uneven reg­u­la­tions and prac­tices.  It is impos­si­ble to know, for instance, how many pres­sure ulcers are occur­ring in hos­pi­tals across Cana­da or whether there is a super­bug out­break.  In many cas­es where report­ing is required, hos­pi­tals get to pick and choose what areas they want to report on.  There is the added fact, as not­ed pre­vi­ous­ly, that Canada’s hos­pi­tal data — when and where it is made avail­able — is based strict­ly on self‐reporting. There is no inde­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion. The idea that Cana­da would have an offi­cial sim­i­lar to the U.S. Inspec­tor Gen­er­al for Medicare and Med­ic­aid who could con­duct a review that found sub­stan­tial under­re­port­ing of harm­ful inci­dents in the hos­pi­tal set­ting, and that those find­ings would attract the atten­tion nation­al leg­is­la­tors, is unthink­able.  The idea that Cana­di­an hos­pi­tals could be finan­cial­ly penal­ized for fail­ing to fol­low cer­tain safe­ty prac­tices, which hap­pens reg­u­lar­ly in the U.S., is equal­ly beyond com­pre­hen­sion.

It would not be tol­er­at­ed if gov­ern­ments sud­den­ly stopped report­ing pas­sen­ger air­line dis­as­ters, or nev­er required them to be report­ed in the first place.  Do we rely on air­lines or rail­road com­pa­nies to deter­mine what went wrong lead­ing up to a crash or derail­ment, or to decide what infor­ma­tion the pub­lic has a right to know?  Even near miss­es must be report­ed in a pub­lic forum.  Such trans­paren­cy is con­sid­ered to be in the pub­lic inter­est.  Between the U.S. and Cana­da, the num­ber of hos­pi­tal deaths from avoid­able harm takes a toll equiv­a­lent to sev­er­al ful­ly loaded jum­bo jets crash­ing every week.  Yet no one real­ly knows pre­cise­ly how many deaths or injuries occur, or why.

Patient safe­ty and trans­paren­cy go hand in hand.  A hos­pi­tal that will not acknowl­edge med­ical error, or worse, tries to cov­er it up, is one that will not learn from its mis­takes. And that is a very dan­ger­ous hos­pi­tal. The pub­lic has a right to such infor­ma­tion in order to make an informed deci­sion about what may be life and death mat­ters — and to deter­mine which hos­pi­tals might be con­tribut­ing more to their life, or death.

For this rea­son, and because of the numer­ous expe­ri­ences of harm that have come to its atten­tion, as well as the life‐altering per­son­al expe­ri­ence that result­ed in its found­ing, The Cen­ter for Patient  Pro­tec­tion is a vig­or­ous cham­pi­on of changes both in hos­pi­tal cul­ture and in the law that will make health­care sys­tems more trans­par­ent and account­able, includ­ing those that sup­port manda­to­ry report­ing of med­ical errors and harm­ful inci­dents.  

A safe patient is an informed patient. It is tru­ly time for the health­care sys­tem to come out of the shad­ows.

It’s Time For A Shake­up In Our Health‐Care Com­plaints Sys­tem

(Pub­lished in The Huff­in­g­ton Post) 


  1. Shin­ing a Light

    From  a  report pre­pared by the Nation­al Patient Safe­ty Foun­da­tion

    From the pub­lic pol­i­cy per­spec­tive, trans­paren­cy is essen­tial for account­abil­i­ty. With­out full infor­ma­tion, nei­ther pol­i­cy mak­ers nor patients can know whether clin­i­cians and their orga­ni­za­tions are deliv­er­ing safe, appro­pri­ate, cost‐effective care.

    From the qual­i­ty and safe­ty per­spec­tive, trans­paren­cy is foun­da­tion­al for learn­ing from mis­takes and for cre­at­ing a sup­port­ive envi­ron­ment for patients and health care work­ers. Trans­paren­cy of all safe­ty, qual­i­ty, and cost data is also essen­tial to the effec­tive func­tion­ing of the health care deliv­ery sys­tem. To make informed and cost­ef­fec­tive deci­sions, all stakeholders—patients, clin­i­cians, pay­ers, providers, and policymakers—need to have full infor­ma­tion in a form that is use­ful and under­stand­able. If health care sys­tems and clin­i­cians don’t know about fail­ures, they can’t fix them.

    Not only does trans­paren­cy pro­mote account­abil­i­ty and improve­ment, but it lies at the heart of the rela­tion­ship between a patient and his or her clin­i­cian. How can patients ful­ly trust the clin­i­cians and orga­ni­za­tions from which they receive care if these clin­i­cians and orga­ni­za­tions are not ful­ly trans­par­ent?

    With­out trans­paren­cy, informed choice is impos­si­ble for either patients or pay­ers. With­out full, hon­est, open com­mu­ni­ca­tion, patients can­not make informed deci­sions about their care or man­age the result­ing emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal chal­lenges when things go wrong. More­over, trans­paren­cy iden­ti­fies best per­form­ers, allow­ing them to reap the rewards of their strong per­for­mance and allow­ing oth­ers to emu­late their best prac­tices. Patients have a right to full infor­ma­tion about every aspect of their care. With­out it, opti­mal care is an elu­sive dream.