Medical errors caused by miscommunication are one of the leading causes of death in America’s hospitals. Whether they are caused by faulty information given by families and patients or mistakes by doctors and nurses when a patient is handed off or placed in a new setting, the errors can result in serious injuries or deaths of patients. The errors may represent hospital malpractice.
Many of the situations that are ripe for communication errors are preventable and can be eliminated through a standardized process for documenting patient information, according to a new study by Boston Children’s Hospital.
Recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study found that using a more modern method for passing on information to the next team of doctors and nurses dramatically reduces the odds of communication errors.
The results were outstanding, according to researchers: Of the 1,255 patient admissions studied, medical errors decreased 45.8 percent using a standardized hand-off process, a rate that surprised even the research team.
The study led by Dr. Christopher Landrigan determined initially that hand-offs are not part of regular medical training. While doctors and nurses spend years learning about lifesaving interventions, the equally important aspect of care – such as ensuring fellow medical providers get the right information – does not receive the same attention.
Physicians typically are trained to take notes and make summaries but not in a way that makes it clear to their fellow providers who inevitably will manage some aspect of a patient’s care.
With that in mind, study researchers standardized hand-offs in a number of ways. For instance, they emphasized face-to-face communication between clinicians and provided them with devices that would enable them to keep up with important components of patient care. In addition, they used technology to ensure that patient records contained updated information during each hand-off.
Previously, patient records had to be re-entered manually, but under the new procedure, patient information was continually updated automatically to enable physicians and nurses to stay abreast of new developments.
Additionally, researchers found that when doctors and nurses used this method they were able to give patients more bedside time in a one-on-one environment that helped improve patient safety.
A separate study by the American College of Surgeons found that 90 of 460 medical malpractice claims – about 20 percent – were linked to communication errors. Thirty-six were related to communication failures by patients and families, while 35 were linked to miscommunications by doctors and 19 by nurses.
Boston Children’s Hospital researchers say they hope to share their techniques from their latest study and decrease the rate of medical errors elsewhere. But hospitals can be slow to institute new methods, whether because of sheer bureaucracy or the size of the facilities.
Therefore, it is important for families and patients to be aware that medical miscommunications can be deadly. Families should understand that they may have a legal right to seek relief – when treatment goes awry – by filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.