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Despite laws in New Jersey and Pennsylvania requiring hospitals to report major medical errors, unanticipated complications, and near misses to state agencies for the purpose of reducing medical mistakes, experts say that hospitals in both states are neglecting to report these kinds of incidents.

In 2007, major medical errors in Pennsylvania included accidentally leaving surgical equipment inside two separate patients at Fox Chase Cancer Center. At Abington Memorial Hospital in 2005, a woman recovering from hip surgery developed open bed sores after being left lying on a bedpan for several hours. In a total violation of state law, none of these incidents was reported by the hospitals responsible.

When serious medical errors don’t lead to a patient’s death, they require additional health care spending—often tens of thousands of dollars per patient—to correct.

"Anybody that is supposed to report close calls and has zero reports is clueless," said James Bagian, head of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Patient Safety. "Management is asleep at the switch and just waiting until they kill someone." ­ Josh Goldstein, Philadelphia Inquirer

Since 2003, though the health department has cited four hospitals in Southeastern Pennsylvania for failing to report serious medical errors, none of these hospitals has been fined.

In the current climate of sloppy enforcement, medical malpractice lawsuits are one of the only ways to protect patients against medical errors. They are also the only way to ensure that hospitals and doctors are held responsible if and when they do cause serious patient harm.

Rather than threaten patient safety and take away the patient’s right to compensation by limiting malpractice claims, health care reform needs to focus on ways to make patients safer. Insisting on better monitoring of hospital errors would be an excellent start.

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