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Federal Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act under fire

The 2005 federal Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act is a federal law that encourages physicians, pharmacies and hospitals to report medical errors and related information to organizations involved in patient safety by shielding these reports from becoming exposed publically. Now two unrelated cases in another state are questioning the law's reach and the outcome could affect other states, including Rhode Island.

The two cases deal with reports that were prepared by healthcare professionals who have since been accused of medical malpractice. In both cases, the Kentucky Court of Appeals has ruled that reports prepared by the accused healthcare practitioners are indeed protected from public disclosure however; reports and other information that has been prepared by other health facility staff members involving quality improvements to processes and procedures can be disclosed in accordance with the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act.

The concern is that if the Kentucky court ruling stands with the state's Supreme Court ruling it could have far reaching impact on quality and safety reporting nationwide by discouraging healthcare professionals from disclosing errors and medical mistakes, especially those involving serious injury or death to a patient. The first case deals with a family who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against doctors after a family member died from complications following surgery. During the discovery phase of the trial, the plaintiff's attorneys requested incident reports concerning the patient's care.

The doctor's accused of medical malpractice objected claiming the documents were protected by the federal patient safety act. After a trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff's the defendant's appealed and the Kentucky Court of Appeals made its ruling. The second case involves a family who sued a hospital for negligence after a family member died from septic shock after he was admitted for paralysis of his lower-leg.

Family members had requested paperwork that had been prepared after the man's death, but the hospital refused to disclose the documents for the same reasons as the first case.

After a lower court ordered the hospital to disclose the documents the hospital appealed and the court ruled the same way it did for the first case. Ultimately reports involving "self-examining analysis" were protected and all others were not. One medical malpractice attorney representing the plaintiffs in the second case said that the hospital is attempting to withhold facts from the family members of the deceased claiming federal protection.

But if the federal privilege can be seen to prevent facts from coming to light it would seriously compromise the family's right to pursue a medical negligence claim.

Source: American Medical News, "Doctors appeal rulings that diminish error reporting protections," Alicia Gallegos, Nov. 19, 2012

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