How Medical Errors Disproportionately Affect People with a Disability

Jun 14, 2017
Tagged with: How Medical Errors Disproportionately Affect People with a Disability

Recently, a friend of mine went to the hospital with gallbladder problems. While removing her gallbladder, a medical professional nicked her pancreas, causing severe illness for several weeks and unknown complications in the future. This got me thinking, how often do medical errors result in disabilities and other permanent health conditions?

Unfortunately, this question is impossible to answer. It’s speculated that 1 percent of hospital visits have a negative result due to negligence, but that doesn’t include other mistakes. Some studies show that only 55 percent of patients are treated according to their care plans, and 30 percent of care may be completely unnecessary.

A related question that may be easier to answer is how many medical errors happen to people who already have complicated medical issues and disabilities? As of 2010, A quarter of medicare recipients (which is just people over 65 or on disability) are victims of medical harm. This means that doctors make a large amount of mistakes on people with complicated health situations. Shouldn’t doctors look at someone whose body is aging or atypical and take care in how they proceed?

Unfortunately, doctors are human, and humans are deeply flawed. Many doctors are overscheduled, and patient reviews often center around timeliness. This leads to doctors looking for the most obvious and quickest solution to people’s health issues. That means that if someone has a disability, the doctor will likely try to link new health issues to that existing disability. While that may not always be the wrong approach, it sometimes is. This is the same line of thinking that leads to overweight people being misdiagnosed or remain completely undiagnosed. Doctors blame the most obvious problem and refuse to look further.

Of course, not all doctors operate this way, and there are many people working to change the healthcare business model to be less capitalism-based and more focused on providing accurate, comprehensive care.

Still, there are countless stories of doctors not listening to people about their own conditions and missing vital information. I heard a story recently about a girl who was allergic to latex. During a surgery, doctors used latex and the girl had an adverse reaction. Doctors claimed that reaction was not a latex allergy, but rather something to do with her disability. This was in spite of being told in advance this girl was allergic to latex. Oversights like this cannot be acceptable.

Medical errors happen for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it’s because of time. Some doctors are sick of people self-diagnosing, so they refuse to do certain tests unless they see absolute proof the test is needed. And of course, money can also be a factor. Pharmaceutical companies push certain products and offer doctors incentives. Sometimes doctors know of negative side effects and sometimes they don’t. It often takes time for knowledge to become industry-wide. This leads to situations where doctors recommend procedures like implanting mesh to relieve hernias, only to find out later that the material used for said mesh is not appropriate for the human body. The side effects of hernia mesh are painful and cause numerous health issues, but that only came to light after several hundred people pursued lawsuits for complications.

Because doctors are human and must be held to human standards, it can be difficult to tell when medical error becomes medical malpractice. Typically, the deciding factor is whether multiple experts in the same field would make the same decision. Unfortunately, because there is widespread inequality in the medical world, this does not guarantee that people who are misdiagnosed or whose medical concerns are ignored because of their disability will be able to pursue compensation or reimbursement for failed or unnecessary procedures.

So what can be done to reduce medical errors? Well, one option is to always get multiple opinions when dealing with health complications. Unfortunately, this can get expensive, and not everyone has time to see multiple doctors. Another option is to supplement medical advice with medical research. This also puts the responsibility on the patient, encouraging people with medical conditions to become experts in their own healthcare. This also is not accessible to everyone.

The focus must be on calling doctors out for making assumptions and working with medical professionals who look at patients for their individual situations rather than stereotypes of their conditions. When scoping out new doctors, ask about their experience with disabilities. Make it clear you’ll only work with professionals who are willing to look at your whole body, not just one factor. This requires some assertiveness, but if enough people start voting with their wallets this way, the medical field will have to listen and become more inclusive.



Author: Jeriann Ireland