Nearly every American will be a patient in a hospital at some time or another over the course of a lifetime. Most of us have confidence in the ability of our medical system to cure diseases and make us well. But research shows a very different story, with current studies revealing that the problem is much bigger than previous estimates indicated.
How Many Patients Suffer the Results of Hospital Errors?
Frequently-quoted statistics put the hospital death toll due to medical error at between 65,000 and 200,000 deaths annually, an already unacceptable figure, which newer research has revised upward to between 220,000 and 440,000.
Some hospital safety experts believe that even these figures are too low. According to the late medical researcher William Charney, it is more likely that at least 788,000 patients die annually as a result of hospital or doctor errors. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement estimates there are 15 million incidents of medical harm each year; the medical journal, Health Science reports that one in every three hospital patients suffers some adverse effect of medical error.
Medical Malpractice Facts and Myths
Drake Law Firm has encountered many myths surrounding medical malpractice in our years as a law firm in Alabama. We know that patients can have many questions during the claims process and aim to spread the facts. For example, we often hear clients worry that the time and cost of a medical malpractice lawsuit aren’t worth the effort. This isn’t true when partnering with the right law firm. A skilled attorney can maximize your odds of success, resulting in payment for your losses. We also take claims on a contingency-fee basis, meaning your claim won’t cost anything unless we win.
Another myth is that medical malpractice is uncommon. Studies suggest that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States, taking more than 250,000 lives every year. Millions of other patients suffer nonfatal injuries from medical errors each year. Alabama alone reported 1,215 medical malpractice claims in 2016. These claims resulted in 61 payouts to patients that year – five of which were $1,000,000 or greater. Many experts believe the current medical malpractice statistics fall short of actual numbers due to many cases never surfacing.
A third common myth is that an injured patient has a long time to file a medical malpractice claim. Patients have just two years from the date of the incident to file a claim. Alabama’s statute of limitations places a two-year deadline to prevent plaintiffs from waiting too long to bring a claim. You will generally lose your right to file if you miss the state’s strict two-year deadline. The clock might not start ticking, however, until the date you discover your injuries. Get all the facts on medical malpractice during a consultation with our law firm.
Contributory Negligence and Contribution
Injured patients in Alabama need to understand the state’s contributory negligence laws before filing a medical malpractice claim. Contributory negligence can greatly affect how much a patient receives for his or her medical malpractice damages, as well as whether or not the patient qualifies for recovery at all. Alabama is a “contributory negligence” state – the worst type for injured accident victims. Contributory negligence means the courts can completely bar a plaintiff from recovery if he or she was negligent to any degree.
While many states have comparative fault laws, which allow a plaintiff to recover at least partial damages for contributing to injuries, Alabama does not permit a plaintiff to secure compensation if he or she is just 1% at fault. For example, say a physician alleges that you were partially responsible for your injuries because you didn’t follow his or her treatment plan exactly. You could receive $0 in compensation if the courts agree – even if you suffered serious injuries, expensive hospital bills, the death of a loved one, or significant emotional distress. It’s important to hire a lawyer to help you combat the contributory negligence defense in Alabama.
Damage Caps in Alabama
Many states place strict caps on medical malpractice pain and suffering damages to safeguard physicians and hospitals from large patient payouts. Luckily for Alabama medical malpractice plaintiffs, the damage cap in Alabama only applies to punitive damages. “Punitive damages” are additional damages the court might assign in cases involving a particularly egregious act of negligence or misconduct on the defendant’s part.
The courts might award punitive damages, for example, if a physician intentionally prescribed a patient the wrong medication to cause harm. The goal of punitive damages is to punish the defendant for his or her actions. Punitive damages may not exceed either three times the amount of compensatory damages or $1,500,000 (whichever is larger) in personal injury claims in Alabama. To receive these damages, a plaintiff must show “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant inflicted the harm deliberately or with conscious malice. Always seek help from an attorney to maximize recovery in Alabama.
Types of Hospital Errors
Errors may cause damage to patients in the emergency room and to those admitted to the hospital. Categories of medical errors include:
- medication errors
- medical procedure errors including surgical errors
- administrative errors
- communication errors
- laboratory errors
- spreading of contagion
- equipment malfunctions
Malpractice in the Emergency Room
Employment in a hospital emergency room is a high pressure, high stress job, one for which not everyone is suited. Medical professionals from emergency medical technicians, to triage nurses to emergency care physicians are called upon to make critical decisions on the spot, knowing that time lost could cost a life. Nevertheless, they must be able to order appropriate testing, administer medication, perform emergency procedures, and more without any undue delay that could endanger the patient.
Because emergency room personnel absolutely must be able to think on their feet and make accurate judgments in a highly pressured environment, this is not a job for everyone. Hospitals need to take every possible step to determine that the professionals they hire to staff the ER have the proven ability to function up to a high standard under intense pressure and in a limited amount of time, because any delay or diagnostic oversight or error can cost a life.
In addition to hiring personnel suited to the work, hospitals need to have procedures firmly in place to guarantee that every step is properly performed and recorded, from taking an accurate patient history to performing a thorough examination of the patient to ordering the proper tests, interpreting them correctly, making an accurate diagnosis, explaining the results to the patient, admitting patients when prudent, and providing clear instructions regarding any medications or follow-up care for patients being sent home. If the proper procedures have been established but are not followed, or if the hospital has not established appropriate procedures at all, they may be held liable for harm that comes to a patient as a result.
Of interest, federal law in the form of EMTALA (Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act) can sometimes apply to Alabama actions for emergency room malpractice. Emtala requires hospitals to treat and stabilize any one who is admitted to the emergency room, regardless of their ability to pay. The purpose of Emtala was to prevent “patient dumping” by hospitals.
A misdiagnosis in the emergency room can be deadly. These are just a few life-threatening conditions that are commonly misdiagnosed due to medical staff negligence:
- A heart attack is misdiagnosed as indigestion
- Bacterial meningitis is misdiagnosed as flu
- A perforated ulcer is misdiagnosed as gastroenteritis
- A stroke is misdiagnosed as migraine
Medication errors often occur in hospital emergency rooms and on the floors. These may be the result of a doctor writing an incorrect prescription, a pharmacist misreading an illegible prescription, misunderstanding a prescription, or confusing two drugs with similar sounding names, or a nurse giving a drug to the wrong patient or at the wrong dosage.
Prescription medication errors are the most common type of hospital error, according to an Institute of Medicine study, which found that:
- Around 400,000 medication errors occur every year in US hospitals, and another 800,000 in long-term healthcare facilities
- At least one person per day dies from a preventable medication error
- Approximately 1.3 million Americas suffer injuries every year because of medication errors.
Whether you are visiting the emergency room or admitted to the hospital, your doctor will generally order lab work and imaging. Errors can occur that result in misdiagnosis or treatment delays. Some examples of problems associated with hospital labs include:
- Improper collection methods
- Contamination of samples
- Improper interpretation of test results
- Lost specimens, images, or lab reports
- Mixing up or mislabeling of specimens or images
- Errors in blood collection or performing a tissue biopsy
Any of these lab errors might indicate that hospital malpractice has occurred and could be used to show the hospital liable for any damages you suffered as a result.
The Veterans Health Administration estimated in an article published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, that between five and ten surgical errors occur in the United States every day.
Errors during surgery that may indicate medical malpractice include:
- Failing to monitor the patient adequately
- Performing surgery on the wrong body part
- Damaging other organs or body parts, such as nerves or blood vessels
- Failing to take proper measurements in a total hip replacement, resulting in leg length disparity
- Leaving a foreign object in the body
- Transfusing an incompatible blood type
- Transplanting an incompatible organ
- Anesthesiology errors
- Radiology errors
- Equipment failure from operator error or poor maintenance
A patient who has suffered a surgical error is 7 times more likely to die, according to research appearing in the journal Medical Care.
Birth Injuries or Death of an Unborn Child
Improper care of a mother and child in a hospital leading up to a delivery can cause birth injuries that may cause physical and mental limitations, years of specialized treatment, and even the death of the child before or shortly after birth. Failure to properly monitor the baby, failure to provided oxygen, failure to perform a timely C-section to deliver a distressed baby, failure to identify cephalopelvic disproportion, improper delivery of baby with shoulder dystocia, improper forceps or vacuum extraction, or any other mishandling of the mother and child in the delivery room results in a birth injury. These are some examples the injuries that a child may suffer in a hospital as the result of medical error, negligence, or incompetence leading up to and following the delivery:
- Oxygen deprivation
- Cerebral palsy
- Brain damage
- Nerve damage
- Kernicterus from untreated jaundice
- Erb’s palsy
- Fractured bones
- Dislocated joints
- Cephalohematoma (bleeding under the membranes covering the skull)
- Facial bruising or lacerations
Death of a Baby before Birth
In the most extreme cases, the child may die before the birth is complete. In Alabama, the law gives legal protection to the unborn. When you arrive in the delivery room, you have every right to expect the high quality care that will result in a safe delivery. The death of a baby immediately before its birth is a tragedy that should never happen.
The parents of an unborn child who dies or a child who is born with a preventable birth injury may hold the hospital, doctor, and staff liable for the injury or wrongful death. To succeed in making your claim, it will be necessary to prove that the doctor and/or hospital staff failed to meet the expected standard of delivery room care.
Spreading of Infection
Hospital acquired (nosocomial) infections are preventable, and hospitals are responsible for providing a clean and sanitary environment by:
- Having a well-trained housekeeping staff
- Using correct sterilization techniques and sanitation procedures (beginning with frequent hand washing)
- Separating patients with infections from others, and controlling the direction of air flow, temperature and relative humidity.
- Applying new technology, including installing alarms to alert staff to scheduled filter changes and special pressurized mats in front of hand-washing areas to ensure adequate hand washing time.
Hospital infections can be prevented, and when hospitals can be shown have failed to enforce reasonable policies to promote proper sanitation, their failure may provide grounds for a medical malpractice action.
Systemic Reasons Why Medical Errors Occur
- For-profit hospitals have as much as two to four times the rate of medical errors as not-for-profit hospitals. Corners are cut to save money and increase profits, to the detriment of the patient.
- High patient-to-staff ratio increases mortality rates. At a ratio of one staff member to every eight patient, the mortality rate is 31 percent higher than with a 1:4 ratio.
- Reduced housekeeping staff results in higher rates of infection
- Overworked staff due to too few employees working too many hours increases the rate of errors due to exhaustion.
- Poor morale among hospital staff leads to mistakes
What to do If You or a Someone You Love Has Become a Victim of Hospital Malpractice
When you visit and emergency room or are admitted to a hospital, you place your life and health in the hands of medical professionals who you should reasonably expect to have the training and commitment to patient care to provide for your needs without harming you. The hospital and its staff owe every patient a duty of care to provide treatment that meets or exceeds the standards accepted by other members of the healthcare community in Alabama.
When the hospital has failed to provide a reasonable standard of care, and your health has suffered or someone close to you has died, you may be able to recover compensatory and possibly punitive damages, with the assistance of a thoroughly experienced medical malpractice attorney.
The Importance of Experienced Legal Representation
Medical malpractice actions are extremely challenging. They are labor intensive, require a good working knowledge of medical terminology and procedure, and usually require bringing in expert witnesses from the medical community. You will need an attorney who has solid medical malpractice experience, detailed knowledge of state malpractice laws, and relationships with respected medical experts to assist in reviewing of your records to identify hospital error and deviation from accepted medical practice.
Getting Help in Birmingham, Alabama
In Birmingham, you will find the level of experience, knowledge, and expertise that can earn you the damage recovery you deserve and hold incompetent and irresponsible hospitals and staff accountable for their wrongdoing at the Drake Law Firm in Birmingham. Call today for an appointment to learn if you have a viable case. Together, we can improve the quality of medical care in Alabama by holding our hospitals to a high standard of excellence.
“I believe Mr. Drake gave me a great service and got me a settlement that was more than fair. Mr. Drake has an excellent support staff that answered all of my questions and returned my phone calls/emails promptly. I would recommend Drake Law Firm to all of my friends and family.” B.B.