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Mistakes During Outpatient Care on the Rise, Study Finds

By Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP

Although researchers have looked extensively at how mistakes made in hospitals can affect patients, little attention has been paid to the mistakes made during outpatient care. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), this area needs to be explored because outpatient provider mistakes are on the rise – and the effects can be devastating.

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College studied the National Practitioner Data Bank – which includes information about malpractice payments made for medical providers – and found that in 2009, 10,739 malpractice payments were made to patients and over 52 percent were the result of errors made during outpatient care. This percentage accounted for $1.5 billion in payments made on behalf of medical providers.

This is an alarming discovery, because, as the authors wrote in their study, “Malpractice claims represent the tip of the iceberg for patient safety events. For every claim, there are likely many near-misses or events with less severe outcomes that can be related to process errors similar to those that resulted in the claim.”

Causes for Outpatient Errors and How to Remedy Them

According to the JAMA study, the most common mistakes made during outpatient care are related to diagnostic errors, treatment decisions and surgical mistakes – that can result in permanent damage to patients and even death. There are several causes for these errors that the researchers cite, including:

  • Shift toward moving patient care from hospitals to outpatient settings
  • Failure to follow up on patient care, including abnormal test results
  • Lack of oversight on stand-alone ambulatory surgical centers

In order to remedy these problems, and reduce the amount of mistakes made during outpatient care, study researchers suggest that facilities adopt policies that will improve communication, so that vital information does not fall through the cracks.

“The problems associated with outpatient safety may not be easy to fix, but the adoption of electronic health records is already improving communication between doctors,” lead researcher Dr. Tara Bishop said in a statement. “Patient safety is likely to improve markedly as more and more doctors’ offices change the way their records are kept, updated and accessed.”

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