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Research conducted by David Lind and the Heartland Health Research Institute corroborates several other studies conducted over the past 20 years that have concluded that medical errors constitute a leading cause of death in the United States and in Iowa. Well in advance of any superficial willingness of the healthcare industry to own up even to the existence of medical errors, patient advocate groups have unsuccessfully pushed Iowa policy makers and healthcare industry advocates to require transparency in not only the reporting of such errors, but in determining their root causes in individual cases where the results have been catastrophic for the patient, as well as require the sharing of those results with the patient. Even when an error is disclosed, healthcare providers seek to block at every turn a patient’s natural attempt to gain access to the truth about how and why the error occurred in the first place.
Unfortunately, current Iowa law allows healthcare providers the freedom to dictate the nature and extent of the information they choose to release with respect to any medical error that occurs. Recently, the state of Iowa relied upon a somewhat archaic set of statutes to prevent release of its investigation of an incident involving a patient who was sedated to undergo a CT scan at the University of Iowa Hospitals and awoke with a dislocated shoulder. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the State that in the interest of promoting the effective review of medical care, the State was not mandated to release such information. Regrettably, for Iowans, this recent interpretation of Iowa law will likely be used by hospitals and doctors to thwart any number of individual patient inquiries into the cause or causes of a wide variety of medical and surgical errors resulting in serious injury or death to Iowans. While perhaps being informed that an error occurred, the patient would have access only to that information the healthcare provider chooses to release. Hence, the surviving spouse of patient who died in a hospital might get a letter from the hospital informing them that their spouse had been given the “wrong” medication, only to have the hospital rebuff any natural and understandable attempt to learn the particular circumstances of the error, whether the error had occurred with other patients and whether and to what extent subsequent corrective measures were implemented to prevent such errors from occurring in the future. Where a climate of full, open and honest disclosure of a medical error and a transparent investigative process breeds trust, secrecy evokes only suspicion and contempt.
As shown by Lind’s research, where 60 percent of persons who experienced medical errors were not informed of the error by the healthcare provider, the Iowa legislature should not stand idle and allow these cloak and dagger practices to continue, but require not only that errors be reported when discovered, but that those harmed and affected by the error be provided a transparent investigative process so that they can learn why the error occurred in the first place to hopefully prevent its recurrence.