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Experts Seek to Understand Epidemic of Medical Errors

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The family lost their first round of a malpractice case following the incident but have since been granted a new trial.

Coincidentally, Sheridan's husband, Pat, had a spinal tumor removed in 1999. At the time, the Sheridans were told the tumor was benign. But six months later, it reappeared as a much larger, more aggressive tumor and was diagnosed as malignant. The family was shocked when records showed that the first tumor was actually cancer.

"How do you restore ethics to a medical system? I think it's too easy for doctors and hospitals to cover up what is happening to patients," Sheridan told reporters.

A variety of experts agree on that point and want to open the reporting of medical errors to public inspection. State governments around the country are considering a mix of mandatory and voluntary error-reporting plans. The hope is that such reporting could help doctors learn from their errors without fear of reprisal, much in the way airline pilots do when they discuss close calls.

A former chairman of the American Hospital Association who attended the summit called for filling the gaps in patient-safety research. "As good as our systems are for preventing and reducing medical errors of all kinds, we can and must do better," said Gordon Sprenger, CEO of the Allina Health System in Minneapolis.

But the American Medical Association fears many doctors wouldn't come forward for fear of malpractice suits. "We don't think that mandatory reporting as it's been out there right now has worked very effectively," said the AMA's Timothy Flaherty, MD. Researching medical errors, Flaherty said, can only work if "it's confidential, non-punitive, and oriented to professional and organizational learning."

One of the most trouble-prone areas is dispensing drugs. Handwriting errors can be lethal. For instance, the term "u" for unit can be misread as a zero, thus increasing a dose of medication ten-fold. Computers could reduce that toll by half, but many hospitals still don't use such a system.

"Too often we've seen the same types of errors repeating themselves, and we know darn well that they're going to continue," said Michael Cohen, a pharmacist with the Institute for Safe Medication Practices.

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