Noted bioethicist and lawyer Lori Andrews recently addressed medical malpractice issues in the inaugural Cathy Shine Lecture at Boston University’s School of Public Health. Andrews said that the secret of the health care system was that many patients die from easily preventable medical errors.

Andrews led a team of researchers who shadowed the medical staff at a teaching hospital. Andrews said that the research helped her determine that medical errors existed at a higher rate than reported in medical records.

“We discovered that 46 percent of patients had at least one error in their care and that 18 percent of patients had an error in their care that caused serious harm,” she said.

Despite the 46 percent error rate observed by Andrews and the researchers, Andrews said that a Harvard Medical Practice Study found a 3.7 percent error rate reported by physicians. The discrepancy could be explained by physicians’ unawareness of the errors or a hesitancy to expose their own mistakes.

“Some physicians in our study indicated that they did not include information about errors in the patient’s chart because they wanted to avoid litigation,” she said.

Andrews was also shocked by the hospital’s failure to learn from medical errors and the lack of effort to prevent future errors.

“People need to become activists to make hospitals safe for all of us,” she said. “If each day a 747 airplane crashed, killing all 500 people aboard, we’d be outraged. But more than that many people die of medical errors each day and society ignores it.”

Source: BU Today, “Health Care’s Hidden Secret: Preventable Medical Errors,” Lisa Chedekel, John O’Rourke, 3/3/11