THE BLOG

During Patient Safety Awareness Week, Remember Injured Patients

05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week is Patient Safety Awareness Week, an annual national education and awareness-building campaign that this year carries greater implications for patient safety than any in recent memory, as it falls in the midst of health reform overhaul negotiations.

As the reform debate continues, this is a week to remember and highlight the 98,000 patients that the Institute of Medicine determined die each year due to preventable medical errors.

Let's put that figure in perspective: If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified medical errors as a category, it would be the sixth leading cause of death, killing more people annually than auto accidents or guns. This is simply unacceptable.

Opponents of reform have fixated on the idea of so-called tort reform - or taking away the rights of injured patients - as a solution to America's health care problems. They offer this red herring over and over, despite ample evidence that changing tort law does nothing to lower costs or cover the uninsured, and flies in the face of patient safety.

The 98,000 people that die each year does not even include those patients seriously injured by medical errors, like Merlyna Adams, a school principal from La Place, Louisiana. Adams' health problems began with a simple kidney stone, but due to negligent medical care, ended with four amputations. Doctors diagnosed her kidney stone but then sent her home from the hospital with no treatment, despite that the stone was too large to pass and had migrated to a position where it blocked her kidney. The blockage caused a full body infection, her body developed sepsis, and the restricted blood flow to her hands and feet required the amputation of both her legs below the knee, as well as both hands. Adams' is now unable to engage in everyday tasks like brushing her teeth, taking a bath, eating or using the restroom without another person.

Adams' story is just one of all too many. The focus this week, and as the health reform debate continues, should be on reducing the frequency of medical errors, a real epidemic that is plaguing our health care system.

Health reform is desperately needed, and its opponents should not be allowed to use the legal rights of injured patients as a bargaining chip. Patient Safety Awareness Week is a reminder that restricting the rights of injured patients when medical negligence is so common would be at odds with the need for higher-quality health care.