Film Shines Light on Deadly Errors in Medicine
Film Shines Light on Deadly Errors in Medicine
– Death toll in U.S. as high as 440,000 per year
by Ian Ingram, Deputy Managing Editor, MedPage Today
April 06, 2018
Can a film help shift the conversation on reducing deadly errors in medicine?
The documentary To Err Is Human, which is currently in previews and opens to wide release in the fall, attempts to answer that question, highlighting the obstacles, consequences, and attempts to address the myriad factors on both the institutional and individual level responsible for errors in medicine.
“It’s a massive topic to address,” said director Mike Eisenberg, following a recent screening of his film. “We really wanted to maintain a singular focus — what would my dad have done if he made this movie?”
His late father, John Eisenberg, MD, MBA, was one of the early directors for what is now the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). He launched AHRQ’s evidence-based practice centers and was viewed as a pioneer for his work in healthcare research. In 2002 he died from a brain tumor, at the age of 55.
To Err Is Human gets its title from the landmark 1999 report on deaths from medical error from the Institute of Medicine, which estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 hospitalized Americans die from medical errors each year.
Medical error isn’t currently a CDC-approved option when listing cause on death certificates — only diseases, morbid conditions, and accidents can be listed.
In 2016 an open letter from Martin A. Makary, MD, MPH, of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, and colleagues urged the CDC to change this policy.
The authors of the letter — who defined death from medical errors as “1) errors in judgment or skill, coordination of care, 2) a diagnostic error, 3) a system defect resulting in death or a failure to rescue a patient from death, and 4) a preventable adverse event” — pointed to the fact that funding for medical research is often based on mortality figures. As such, patient safety gets a short shrift, and little public awareness.
The CDC says its methodology is in keeping with international standards of reporting on the causes of death.
More recent (though controversial) estimates put the number of deaths due to medical error at 400,000 per year or higher, but even conservative estimates would still make it the third leading cause of death in the U.S. following heart disease and cancer.
“In 2006, I had my own medical error and became part of that statistic,” said Sally Roumanis, RN, a patient-safety specialist at Yale, who shared her experience during a panel discussion that followed the screening.
Her husband Dean ended up in the ER at Yale following a cardiac event while cycling. A stent was put in and everything had seemingly gone well. It was late at night and Dean urged Roumanis and their daughter to head home for rest. “I can’t stand you hovering,” he joked, Roumanis recounted.
But at 5 a.m. Roumanis received a call saying her husband’s condition had drastically worsened. She arrived back at Yale to see a team rushing toward the cath lab, then doctors performing chest compressions on her husband.
A couple of days later she was told her husband’s death was a result of medical error.
A coronary artery had been perforated during the stent procedure resulting in bleeding and pericardial collection. “That wasn’t the error — it was a complication,” explained moderator Harlan Krumholz, MD, of Yale’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies. “But throughout the night, as Dean began to struggle, the junior doctors failed to escalate the problem to a higher level and didn’t appreciate the seriousness.”
It was early in the morning and the doctors handling the situation were early in their careers. “Nurses were advocating for escalation,” Krumholz continued, “but didn’t feel empowered to override the situation.”
The inexperienced doctors were treating the symptoms without understanding the cause. Dean’s condition continued to spiral downward until 5 a.m. when he went into cardiac arrest. “His pressure drops dramatically — they realize it needs to be escalated,” Krumholz said. “They rush him to the lab, but it’s too late.”
“This can’t be happening,” Roumanis told herself. “You just think, ‘no, he’s in a hospital, he’s in a safe place.'”
Talking About Medical Errors
In the past, doctors were trained not to talk about mistakes, but that attitude has shifted. The film features one institution that uses actors to train physicians delivering news of a medical error made during care.
Marna P. Borgstrom, MPH, president and CEO of Yale New Haven Health System, said that nothing has changed in the way of medical malpractice litigation, but that organizations — and individuals within organizations — have made the decision that it’s the right thing to do. “Now, whenever there is an error made, whether or not there is identifiable harm to the patient, we encourage the responsible clinicians to talk with the patients about that,” she said.
“Patients still sue us when that happens,” she added, “and that’s not wrong, because in some cases people are entitled to damages.”
Borgstrom, who spoke during the panel portion, recalled that when Yale first started tracking medical errors in an internal patient safety-reporting database there were about 14,000 events the first year, across the network of providers. “That sounds like a lot,” she said. Three years later it was 24,000 and growing.
“We viewed that as a good sign,” she said. “Rather than being afraid of telling people we made a mistake, people are talking about it.”
AHRQ, which has been under constant threat of defunding by Congress, is still in trouble and could possibly be rolled into the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “If AHRQ is dissolved into the NIH, there will still be some form of patient safety effort going on in NIH, where people who worked at AHRQ will hopefully be able to continue their work, but the budgets will be decreased, their efforts will be pared down,” Eisenberg said. “The way it is right now will no longer exist if that happens.”
However, as part of the omnibus bill, Congress passed a 3% increase to AHRQ’s budget for the next fiscal year ($334 million total), the first increase in 10 years. “So this is good news. There are caveats — I’m sure that those increases come with responsibilities that are not only focused on patient safety,” Eisenberg said. “The entire budget is never only about patient safety anyway.”
He said there are still people in very powerful positions who don’t think AHRQ’s work is important.
In 2012 AHRQ released a report detailing that a combination of best practices, improved safety culture, and a bigger focus on teamwork could cut central-line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs) in hospitals by 40%. Borrowed from lessons learned in the aviation industry, one of the components included use of a procedure checklist, and during the film and panel discussion — countless comparisons were made to the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to improve safety.
“A lot of these problems are engineering problems,” said Kevin M. Johnson, MD, of the Department of Radiology & Biomedical Imaging at Yale School of Medicine, chiming in from the audience. “And we have almost no engineers around.”
Between interviews with experts in the field of patient safety, To Err Is Human weaves in the story of Susan Sheridan, whose family’s intersection with the healthcare system was met with two medical errors.
First, jaundice (a sign of too-high bilirubin) in her newborn son, Cal, was ignored and led to brain damage and development of cerebral palsy. Sheridan’s experience led her to become a patient-safety advocate. Today hospitals routinely tests for elevated bilirubin.
Years later her husband Patrick was diagnosed with and treated for a benign brain tumor. Additional tests from pathology had revealed a malignant tumor, yet this was never communicated to Patrick’s physician. Left untreated, the disease aggressively spread until it was too late. He died in 2002.
While the plan is for wide release in the fall, the trailer is now available online and various upcoming screenings have been scheduled in select cities — including Cleveland on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week, and Philadelphia on April 20. The latter will include a panel discussion.