This article was written by Sy Larson and Linda Greenstein

Imagine you have recently been informed by your doctors that you must undergo a medical procedure. You trust your doctors, and know that the procedure is fairly routine. Thanks to the Patient Safety Act of 2004, you know that 1,550 medical errors have been reported to the state since February 2005. Yet you have no idea how many of these medical errors occurred in the hospital to which you are being admitted — or if other hospitals might have a better record.

Because New Jersey law does not require hospital-specific medical error reporting, New Jersey health consumers can only wonder and worry about the safety of their medical facilities.

In February the Star Ledger published an AARP op-ed entitled “Which hospitals are the healthiest?” The piece called for reporting of preventable medical errors by facility, so that New Jersey health consumers could make informed health care choices. Six months later this information still remains hidden, and New Jersey residents are left in the dark, unaware of how safe their hospital really is.

A preventable medical error is defined as an avoidable medical mistake that results in serious injury or death. New Jersey law requires hospitals to report 28 such “never events,” the most serious types of preventable medical errors. Examples of “never events” include unintended retention of a foreign object in a patient after surgery, medication errors that result in death or serious disability, falls resulting in death or serious disability, and surgery errors such as wrong surgery, wrong patient, and wrong body part.

Too many New Jerseyans have suffered from the effects of medical errors. AARP recently highlighted the tragic story of Richard Flagg, who went in for surgery to remove a tumor on his left lung. Tragically, wrong-side surgery occurred. Instead of removing 10 percent of the tumor on Flagg’s left lung, the surgeon removed 40 percent of the healthy right lung. The mistake ultimately cost Richard Flagg his life. This year the state suspended Flagg’s doctor’s medical license.

Recent studies have also exposed some shocking preventable medical error statistics. A recent HealthGrades study of Medicare patient records showed 1.16 million preventable errors occurred between 2003 and 2005.

It is believed that if the CDC included medical errors on its annual list of the leading causes of death, it would show up as number six — higher than pneumonia, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

AARP calls upon Health Commissioner Heather Howard to reveal medical error data by health care facility. The state took a step in the right direction with its recent budget decision, which asserts that tax payers will no longer foot the bill for preventable medical errors through state Medicaid dollars. However, it is time for the state to work with the New Jersey Hospital Association and other stakeholders to empower consumers with this important health care information.

For too long patients have been kept in the dark about how frequently serious medical errors occur at specific New Jersey hospitals. State Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein is co-sponsoring legislation that will change that. Public disclosure of medical error rates will give consumers much better information about the quality of care that is delivered at each hospital. It will also give the hospitals a strong incentive to re-double their efforts to improve care, implement safety processes, and prevent errors.

Opponents of this bill suggest that disclosing the number of events reported by each hospital would cause a “chilling effect” on the number of events reported. The theory is that if the state were to publicize the amount of errors at a specific facility, then hospitals and medical facilities would be more inclined to lie when they report to the state.

However, this is a direct attack on the integrity of New Jersey doctors and the entire health profession. It is ridiculous to believe that doctors who have committed themselves through the Hippocratic oath to ethical medical practices will fabricate their medical error reporting.

Public reporting of hospital-specific medical errors creates a safer hospital. The state of Minnesota requires public reporting of medical errors by facility. Minnesota, unsurprisingly, finished first in the nation for patient safety, according to the most recent HealthGrades report.

How did New Jersey, a state that does not disclose hospital-specific medical error data, rank in the same HealthGrades study?

Dead last. 51 out of 51.

It is the public’s right to know which medical facilities have the highest and lowest major medical error rates, so that health consumers can make responsible health care choices. It is time for New Jersey to bring this important medical information out of the dark and into the light. In the words of the esteemed Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Sy Larson is president of AARP New Jersey. A former business agent for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and high school teacher, Larson earned his Ph.D. in political science in 1971 and began a twenty-year tenure as professor and chair of the Department of Labor Studies at Rutgers University.

Linda Greenstein is an assemblywoman represnting the 14th Legislative Distric. A former Plainsboro Township committeewoman and member of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education, Greenstein has a bachelor’s in psychology from Vassar College, a master’s in psychology from Johns Hopkins University, and a J.D. from Georgetown University.

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