Hospitals a No-Show at Senate Hearing: What's Up With This?

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders and a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) subcommittee held hearings to shine a light on the third leading cause of death in the United States: medical mistakes in hospitals.

Curious minds should ask: Where were the hospitals?

In opening remarks, Senator Sanders said that up to 440,000 people die every year from hospital medical errors. He cited a study in the Journal of Patient Safety by Dr. John T. James, who testified at the hearing about his research, which was prompted by the death of his 19-year old son, Alex, from a hospital mistake.

More than a decade ago, I wrote Wall of Silence: The Untold Story of the Medical Mistakes That Kill and Injure Millions of Americans. When the publisher came up with the subtitle, I was mortified. I thought it was too strong. I was wrong.

In the past 15 years, the cumulative number of deaths from hospital errors is equivalent to wiping out the entire population of Massachusetts -- 6.6 million people (that is, 440,000 deaths x 15 years).

Senator Elizabeth Warren attended the hearing, although she probably never thought of the human toll of medical errors this way.

The cumulative number is more than the combined populations of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island -- the latter two are the home states of Senator Sanders and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who also attended the hearing.

No hospital CEOs testified at the hearing. Were any called to appear before the committee? If not, why not?

One would be hard-pressed to find any hospital CEO who has ever been summoned to testify before Congress to be held accountable for preventable patient harm.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra has been hauled before Congress to account for at least 13 deaths from faulty ignition switches and a cover-up. A Forbes blog about the GM nightmare called on the company to come clean, change its culture, and learn from its mistakes, a perfect prescription for what ails health care.

If CEO Barra had to testify about 13 deaths, why not CEOs of hospitals with far more preventable deaths?

Remember Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who fell on his sword, apologized, and took responsibility for the scandal in which many veterans were not receiving the treatment they needed?

Privately, doctors, nurses and patients say that what happens in the VA is hardly different from what happens in private healthcare facilities.

Why are non-VA hospitals and their CEOs given a pass?

The trade journal Modern Healthcare reported in June that the famed Cleveland Clinic was on Medicare "termination track" for 19 months for persistent patient safety violations. Who knew?

It wasn't until retired Air Force colonel, Vietnam veteran, and former 747 pilot David Antoon, baffled by the secrecy surrounding errors in medicine, unlike in aviation, filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the federal government to open up inspection reports of the Cleveland Clinic, which revealed systemic and shocking violations of basic ethical and safety principles.

It's easier to buy a reputation for high-quality health care than it is to do the hard work of making it real for every patient every day.

Consumers Union's Lisa McGiffert, director of its Safe Patient Project, testified at the Senate hearing, calling for public reporting of errors, stronger oversight, and accountability to make care safe. Ending secrecy saves lives.

Is health care getting safer? The president of the Federation of American Hospitals, Chip Kahn, thinks so, according to an interview.

It's true that in some hospitals, fewer people are succumbing to deadly infections, painful bedsores, and other preventable conditions, thanks to the hard work of dedicated professionals.

But overall, health care is becoming more unsafe. Ask any doctor, nurse or pharmacist. They are forced to see more patients, do more tests and surgeries, and fill more prescriptions in the same amount of time to improve "productivity" and pump up the bottom line. If they speak up, they may be out of a job.

Any system that has defects and is forced to operate at a faster pace will have worse performance.

The silver lining is that advocacy by informed members of the public has kept medical errors in the spotlight. Without them, the harm would have been swept back under the rug.

I will never forget a woman I interviewed for Wall of Silence. The Emmy-winning television anchor had cosmetic surgery at age 42. A medical mistake ended her career, her marriage, and the rest of her life as she had known it.

She made a chilling prediction about the number of people harmed by medical care: "There will be so many coming forward that they will blacken the sky."

She was right. They will keep coming -- even if hospitals are AWOL.