Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Medical errors are
endangering patients

Bullet The issue: Medical error is attributed to tens of thousands of deaths a year, according to a new report.

Bullet Our view: Government action may be required to penetrate the medical shield of secrecy and reduce the risk of error.

WHILE important strides have been made in many facets of life to assure people's health and safety, the one area that might be assumed to be in the pink has become a danger zone. Health care, it turns out, has become mistake-riddled to the point that a person is more likely to die from medical error than in a highway accident. Efforts must be made to reduce the risk.

Figures attesting to America's error-prone medical field were compiled in a report by the National Academy of Sciences. The academy's Institute of Medicine concluded that "health care is a decade or more behind other high-risk industries in its attention to ensuring basic safety."

Few of these errors rise to the level of medical malpractice. Mostly, they involve a pharmacist misreading a scribbled prescription or confusing like-sounding drug names, doctors lacking sufficient information about a patient's treatment by other physicians, or health-care professionals not being up on the latest technological advances.

The report suggests that medical errors in hospitals alone kill 44,000 to 98,000 people a year, compared with death tolls of 43,450 from traffic accidents, 42,300 from breast cancer and 16,500 from AIDS. The report is titled, "To Err is Human," but the figures revealing the level of medical sloppiness are intolerable.

"These stunningly high rates of medical errors -- resulting in deaths, permanent disability and unnecessary suffering -- are simply unacceptable in a medical system that promises first to 'do no harm,' " said William C. Richardson, president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and chairman of the panel that conducted the study.

The 19-member panel urged Congress to create a new federal agency, a Center for Public Safety, to set national goals for reducing medical errors. The panel also said health practitioners should be re-examined periodically for competence.

IN addition, it recommended that hospitals -- and eventually doctors, clinics, outpatient surgery centers, nursing homes and other health-care providers -- be required to report all serious mistakes to state agencies so experts can detect patterns and take action. It denounced the "culture of secrecy" surrounding medical mistakes.

That wall of secrecy must be penetrated for any effort at significantly reducing the room for medical error to be successful. Federal action may be needed to provide patients the same assurance against accidents as airline passengers and people in the workplace.

Family leave flexibility
will benefit parents

Bullet The issue: President Clinton has proposed a rule allowing for unemployment-insurance funds to be used for new parents on family leave.

Bullet Our view: The flexibility will be beneficial for parents in states with robust economies.

A booming mainland economy has left some states with burgeoning funds designated for unemployment insurance but with relatively few recipients. States are not allowed to spend the funds for purposes other than jobless benefits.

However, an exception proposed by President Clinton will allow payments to parents taking time off from work to care for a new baby. The flexibility should be welcomed in those states now and, hopefully, in Hawaii sometime soon.

States already are given some latitude in determining eligibility for unemployment compensation, but federal rules restrict use of the funds to jobless benefits.

The states of Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington were considering trying to extend the program to new parents when Clinton directed the Labor Department to formulate rules allowing states to legislate such action. The proposed rule, which does not require congressional approval, is planned to take effect early next year.

"I believe it will strengthen parents' bonds with both their children and their jobs," Clinton said. "On the eve of this new century, we ought to set a goal that all parents can take the time they need for their families without losing the income they need to support them."

Since Congress enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act six years ago, 24 million people have used some or all of their entitlement to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with guaranteed job protection to care for a baby or other family member.

A federal study three years ago determined that new parents who did not take advantage of the law cited the loss of income as the main reason. One in 10 of those who took the leave ended up on welfare during their time off the job.

States will be allowed to decide themselves whether their unemployment pots are full enough to be used for family leave, and determine the terms and duration of payments. This is a refreshing departure from the tendency of the federal government to impose requirements.

Hawaii can only look toward economic recovery, when its new parents may benefit from the rule.

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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