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Surgical Mistakes Often Kept Secret By Hospitals and Care Providers

The public deserves to know when medical care providers and hospitals make mistakes resulting in patient harm. Unfortunately, many malpractice settlements come with confidentiality agreements preventing injured patients from speaking out about their stories. Patients do not learn how frequently surgical errors occur as a result of these confidential settlements, which means patients cannot make informed choices about where to get a procedure done. Patients are also kept in the dark about all of the risks they face when a particular surgeon performs an operation at a specific hospital.  surgery-2-1384348-m

Confidentiality Clauses Mean Patients Can't Learn About Surgical Errors

9 Investigates reports on the "secret settlements" healthcare facilities frequently enter into to compensate patients for surgical errors while keeping patterns of negligence from the public.

One patient interviewed for the story had sustained serious health problems when a surgical sponge was left inside of her body. She knew something was wrong after the procedure, and six months later the sponge was spotted on an x-ray. She was diagnosed with an abdominal mass and sent back to her original surgeon for emergency surgery. When the sponge was removed, the surgeon never told her it was a sponge. The hospital ultimately settled the case with her, but a condition of the settlement was signing a confidentiality agreement.

The confidentiality agreement prevented her from discussing what had happened and for the last 20 years she has suffered in silence as she underwent multiple additional surgeries and endured years of pain. While she still cannot discuss the settlement, she is speaking out about what she went through as part of an effort to get rules changed about the permissibility of confidentiality agreements.

Several states-- including California, Florida, and South Carolina-- have laws prohibiting confidentiality agreements in some or all malpractice claims, so there is more transparency when a hospital makes a surgical mistake. These laws make it impossible for healthcare facilities to buy patient silence as a condition of compensating them for surgical errors they have endured.

Because so many cases are kept confidential, most patients are unaware that a surgical instrument or other foreign object is left inside patients in as many as one out of every 5,500 surgeries.

Information is not only hard to come by due to confidentiality agreements but also because there is limited data available from government sources. The federal government stopped reporting on these types of preventable errors made by hospitals last August, although the government subsequently reversed the decision and decided to keep making reports. NY laws also keep complaints against physicians secret unless the complaints result in a statement of charges or a final disciplinary action. When complaints are not adjudicated or when complaints are settled without formal disciplinary action, the public may never know a surgeon has made an error.

Patients deserve to know when doctors and hospitals have a history of serious mistakes in surgery. More states should consider putting laws in place prohibiting healthcare facilities from forcing affected patients to stay silent.

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