As the Death Toll Rises, House Bill 1064 Seeks to Limit Liability for Physicians

By:  Sandra S. Neuman, President Elect

Two interesting news items pertaining to medical malpractice crossed my desk this week.  The first was a study by two Johns Hopkins physicians who examined the problem of death by medical error.  According to the study, medical error was the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.  As astounding as this fact is alone, it was noted that a very real problem exists in accurately calculating death due to medical negligence.  Statistics on death are gathered annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  However, the data is compiled from death certificates filled out by physicians, funeral directors, medical examiners and coroners. This method is flawed, or at least limited, because there is no International Classification of Disease (ICD) code for human or system error.  In other words, because there is no exact classification system on death certificates to identify medical malpractice as a cause or contributing factor of death, it can be hypothesized that the calculated number of deaths due to medical error is essentially higher than reported.  In light of the sheer volume of lives that are lost due to preventable medical errors, one would think that there would be a push from our legislators on a national or local level to identify or make medical errors more visible; figure out a way to quickly respond to a medical error; and design a transparent process to make medical errors less frequent.  Haven’t they done this with cardio-vascular disease and cancer?  There are public service announcements galore on identifying risk factors for heart disease and cancer, with great emphasis on prevention.  Where is the public attention on identifying and preventing medical errors?  Or identifying the doctors and hospitals causing these deaths?  Unfortunately, what we continue to see is a process shrouded in secrecy and a full court press to keep egregious medical mistakes and repeat offenders confidential.

The second news item of the week dovetails into the first on the issue of legislators taking action to prevent death by medical errors or at least, protect the rights of those impacted by negligent medical care.  Contrary to what most people would believe to be a common sense approach to protect the public from preventable death, or preserve the rights of victims of negligent medical care, several Pennsylvania legislators are proposing the opposite: House Bill 1064, sponsored by Representative Evankovich and supported by 35 others, attempts to grant qualified immunity to physicians and other health care providers who provided care in an emergency setting by increasing the negligence standard to “gross negligence” and changing a plaintiff’s burden of proof to “clear and convincing”.  This is astounding.  In a system where the number of preventable medical deaths per year keeps rising and the number of medical malpractice cases being filed keeps dropping (disproving the fiction of a “medical malpractice crisis”), how can our legislators continue to take action to punish or limit the rights of victims of medical negligence?  We need to take action to defeat the myth of a medical malpractice crisis, educate and inform the public on the jaw-dropping number of deaths each year caused by medical errors, and fight to defeat HB 1064.

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