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An article in the Washington Post reported, "Based on state data, Joint Commission officials estimate that wrong-site surgery occurs 40 times a week in US hospitals and clinics. Mistakes such as amputating the wrong leg, performing the wrong operation, or removing a kidney from the wrong patient are medical errors that should never happen.

According to a recent study, one-in-three patients admitted to a hospital experiences a medical error or negligence during hospitalization. Some errors occur even though a member of the surgical team might feel something is wrong and fails to speak up. Why? It happens because he or she is fearful of slowing the process or challenging the surgeon in charge. Is this cause for concern? Absolutely!

Despite efforts, some researchers and patient safety experts say the problem of wrong-site surgery has not improved and, in fact, may be getting worse. Last year a jury awarded a $20 million negligence verdict against Arkansas Children’s Hospital for surgery on the wrong side of the brain of a 15-year-old boy who was left psychotic and severely brain-damaged. The error was not disclosed to his parents for more than a year. Here are other recent cases:

  • A Portland, Oregon ophthalmologist operated on the wrong eye of a 4-year-old boy.

  • Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston reported that neurosurgeons performed three wrong-site spinal surgeries in a two-month period.

  • Five wrong-site operations in less than three years were performed in the operating rooms of Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.

  • In Colorado, three men underwent prostate cancer surgery. The problem? They never had cancer!

Unfortunately, many medical malpractice victims and their families have little success in holding the medical providers accountable. One study found that only a third of wrong-site cases result in medical malpractice lawsuits. The average settlement was less than $81,000 in cases resulting in lawsuits and $47,000 in those resolved without legal action. The majority of cases go uncompensated. Who bears the cost of the malpractice? The victim and the taxpayers bear the ultimate burden; the doctors, hospitals and insurance companies get a huge discount when it comes to ruining people’s lives. Even when you consider the result with the brain damaged 15-year-old, look what had to happen to him to be awarded $20,000,000! Will that sum cover a lifetime of 24 hour care and treatment? And, in tort-reformed states, like Texas and Mississippi, such a patient would see his verdict artificially capped at below one million. Try paying to support a severely brain damaged child on less than one million dollars. And how do we, the people, deal with those politicians who serve up these dirty deals to citizens in favor of corporations, hospitals, doctors and insurance companies? In Texas and Mississippi, for example, we re-elect them Governor, then applaud when they announce that they might want to run for President. What’s wrong with this country where corporate America is more important to our elected officials than citizen America?

Reporting to the commission is voluntary and confidential; about half the states do not file reports. Those states that report errors have not seen a decline. Some hospitals in Minnesota conduct a "timeout" before each surgery; “all parties cease prep activities for a minute to focus on what the procedure will entail." Despite several years of promoting timeouts, the most recent 12-month reporting period in Minnesota hospitals and surgery centers reported yielded 48 wrong surgeries in area hospital and surgery centers — the highest number since the state began collecting data in 2004.

Medical mistakes can:

  • cause serious complications

  • lead to serious disabilities and life-long problems

  • be lethal

How can we alter these trends? Improved communication is critical. Creating an environment where all members of the health care team, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, feel they can speak up about safety concerns can and will prevent medical errors. A strong system of checks and balances are equally important. The easiest ways is to check the identity of the patient – during registration, when blood is drawn, with the nurse, and again with the doctor. In addition, the body part being treated should be marked by the patient in order to prevent mistakes and mistaken identity.

Isn’t it time we focused on ways to prevent medical errors, rather than focusing on the amount that seriously damaged victims receive in compensation for those errors? Isn’t it time we stop depriving seriously injured victims of their constitutional right to have a jury and/or a judge decide compensation? Isn’t it time the medical profession accepts responsibility? Physician: Heal thyself? Absolutely!

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by plaintiffs involved in pending, personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association as well as their ABA Advisory Committee, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.


  1. Gravatar for Joe K.

    In the example of the brain damaged 15 year that was awarded $20,000,000, using Texas and Mississippi tort reform as an example, isn't more accurate to say that the non-economic damages wold have been capped but the economic damages as well as medical cost would have been covered making the total payout much larger than the capped amount you are insinuating?

  2. Gravatar for Bob Ofugly

    I'm pretty sure simply limiting damage awards will do nothing to improve health care. It will lower insurance premiums for doctors and their employers. What is needed is a comprehensive program to review and settle lawsuits quickly and fairly, without the lottery of a jury trial. As it is now it takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars before a patient sees anything. There also needs to be a national system for licensing physicians to prevent the few bad, repeat offenders from continuing to practice.

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