California residents who have suffered a medical malpractice injury or illness likely believe that theirs is a rare experience in what is an overall excellent health care system. Unfortunately, such is not the case. The Washington Post reports that medical errors are commonplace today and may account for as many as 251,000 deaths a year, making them the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Two researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine looked at everything from incompetent doctors to communication breakdowns when patients are transferred from one doctor to another or between and among hospital departments. Another study reported in Statnews.com found that communication errors were linked to 1,744 deaths in five years.

The problem

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to determine where the errors are coming from. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects nationwide death data through billing codes, it does not require the inclusion of medical error data. In addition, there is no standardization of the way in which health care is delivered, resulting in a huge variability of  practices and procedures throughout the country.

Suggested solutions

Many have urged the CDC to update its vital statistics reporting requirements. Were doctors required to report any errors that led to a preventable death, such information would be of tremendous help to other health care facilities.

In terms of communication errors, one specific solution is the I-PASS device. I-PASS is an acronym standing for illness severity, patient summary, action list, situation awareness and contingency planning, and synthesis by receiver. Hospitals currently using this device make it part of their protocol for passing patients from each set of work shift personnel to the next.