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Can a hospital keep a surgical mistake a secret?

The Leapfrog Group is a national nonprofit advocacy organization focused upon medical improvements and patient safety. Leapfrog spokespersons occasionally release information to the public that is purposefully intended to grab attention and foster strong reform-minded debate.

Here's a representative tidbit: According to Leapfrog, surgical teams mistakenly leave foreign objects inside patients' bodies in about one of every 5,500 operations performed across the country.

On the one hand, some of our readers in Texas and elsewhere might take a bit of comfort in that number, viewing it from a sort of "I'd roll the dice with those odds stacked against me" perspective.

On the other hand, though, extrapolation also provides for an eye-opening and starkly contrastive perspective. One online site that provides surgical data states that 51.4 million -- yes, million -- surgeries are performed annually in the United States, with that number relating just to in-patient operations.

On average, that equates to nearly 141,000 in-patient procedures performed every day of the year.

That number likely results in more than a few people adjusting their opinions on the problematic dimensions of surgically retained foreign objects.

As noted in a recent media article discussing surgical errors and confidentiality agreements, a singular concern is posed for public health when hospitals are not routinely required to disclose negligence and resulting medical harm. A medical malpractice lawsuit can often alert the public to a material health concern (and motivate the medical industry to make improvements), but errors do not always see the light of day.

The reason: Some facilities offer a certain amount of money to patients to settle disputes, but with the caveat that they must sign a secrecy agreement.

In other words, they can never talk about the harm inflicted upon them.

Is that legal? Can hospitals do that, even though the practice clearly runs counter to the public's best interests?

Unfortunately, they can, absent any law that bans or limits the use of confidentiality agreements.

Advocates for change argue that transparency is critically important in the medical industry. The ability of an injured patient to have a malpractice case against a negligent defendant heard in a courtroom by a jury of his or her peers ensures openness and can help deter medical errors that might otherwise repeat themselves in the future. Consultation service from the Maloney Team is free. Contact us today to get started.

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