Even doctors can be victimized by medical malpractice

Anyone can be the victim of medical malpractice; even doctors. In a remarkable Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times on February 20, 2013, Dr. Frederick S. Southwick, a professor of Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville, wrote about how he lost his leg to medical error, and how his wife almost died due to medical error. The point of Dr. Southwick’s article is that the same careful processes and quality controls utilized by major American companies need to be applied to medical care, and that by utilizing such processes and controls many medical errors can be eliminated, saving lives and billions of dollars.

In Dr. Southwick’s case, he had Achilles tendon surgery many years earlier. The surgeon put a cuff on Dr. Southwick’s leg to prevent bleeding during the procedure, but kept the cuff on too long, permanently injuring blood vessels which, years later, resulted in amputation. In that case, a simple timer built into the cuff could have warned the surgeon to release the cuff early enough to prevent any injury. Dr. Southwick’s wife almost died because of delayed decision-making, poorly coordinated care and a medication error. Dr. Southwick’s wife survived, barely, only after a new physician was brought in care for her.

Dr. Southwick, who authored a book Critically Ill: A 5-Point Plan to Cure Healthcare Delivery, argues that by incorporating quality controls and available efficiencies, and by adopting specific protocols, many, many medical errors can be avoided.

One type of quality control – – limitations on the number of hours resident doctors can work – – came into existence only because of the tragic death in 1984 of Libby Zion, the 18 year old daughter of author Sidney Zion. Libby was a patient in New York Hospital, a major teaching hospital in Manhattan. Following a detailed investigation and a medical malpractice lawsuit, it was determined that Libby had been followed and treated by residents, graduate doctors in training, who had been on duty for 36 straight hours. Having residents work for over 24 hours at a stretch, and over 100 hours in a week, was a standard practice in hospitals throughout the United States. For anyone who spent all-nighters in college it is pretty obvious that a person working 24 hours, in a row, much less than 36 hours in a row, is going to be much more likely to commit errors than someone working not going to be at the top of his game and much

After many years Sidney Zion’s advocacy finally achieved one of his goals. In 1987, New York mandated that residents not work more than 24 consecutive hours and not more than 80 hours per week, but that was a standard not universally accepted. Patient safety and the number of hours residents should be permitted to work remains a subject of discussion by the Institute of Medicine and others.