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Cost of doctors' failure to communicate may leave you speechless

Whether you're heading to the hospital for a scheduled procedure or in an unexpected emergency, the experience is likely to be a stressful one. However, you should be able to rely on medical staff to make the process as stress-free as possible from beginning to end, from giving you the highest quality care to explaining your condition, treatment and other relevant health information in clear and comprehensive terms.

This last point, it turns out, is especially important, both between you and your doctors, and when health care staff communicates with each other. In fact, a recent study indicates that better communication in the medical world could have saved almost 2,000 lives in a year. Is anything being done to address this fatal lack of communication and help keep you and your loved ones alive and well?

Lack of communication costs health and lives

Failures in communication factored in a full 30 percent of medical malpractices cases in a recent study, and, horrifyingly, accounted for at least 1,744 deaths in one single year. Additionally, when analysts examined nearly 25,000 records of medical malpractice cases spanning 4 years, the numbers were even more shocking -- 7,000 communication errors directly resulting in patient harm. Take, for instance, the following cases:

  • A diabetic patient called a medical office, but staff failed to relay messages to the patient's primary care provider, resulting in the patient's death from diabetic ketoacidosis.
  • A nurse's failure to inform a surgeon of the patient's drop in red blood cell count and abdominal pain following an operation – signs of internal bleeding – led to a fatal hemorrhage.
  • A year-long delay in a woman's cancer diagnosis resulted from a communication error failing to pass along test results.
  • A PCP's failure to highlight lab results indicating congestive heart failure during a referral to a lung doctor resulted in the patient's death when his lungs filled with fluid.

Researchers blame a number of factors -- from electronic health recording systems that aren't user friendly, to the hierarchy of the workplace, to constant interruptions, heavy workload and more – but the bottom line is the same: Patients are dying due to a failure in communication, and something needs to change.

A new approach

One estimate attributed a whopping 80 percent of serious medical errors to miscommunication between health care staff while transferring patients. One team has come up with a system to improve communication, I-PASS: Illness severity, Patient summary, Action list, Situation awareness and contingency planning and Synthesis by receiver. This method is a means for doctors and nurses to accurately relay crucial information during patient handoffs when staff shift changes occur. The approach may sound like common sense, but when certain hospitals adopted the method, errors decreased by nearly 25 percent.

Failures in the meantime

In order for approaches like I-PASS to succeed and begin saving lives on a widespread basis, advisors feel that hospitals first need to create an environment where medical staff can address the concerns of patients and communicate with them in ways they can understand, as well as feeling free themselves to speak up and ask questions without fear of ridicule or punishment.

It is the hope that more medical facilities will adopt this or other methods to decrease or even eliminate entirely the often-fatal risks posed by lack of communication in the health care system. Until then, unfortunately, many patients are still suffering the ill effects of this miscommunication between doctors. If you or someone you love has suffered serious injury or worse due to errors or failure to communicate, there are experienced Tennessee professionals whose knowledge of the medical field can prove invaluable when exploring options for just compensation.

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