A new medical television show premiered [[wysiwyg_imageupload:155:]]
giving viewers a glimpse into medicine that other shows haven’t touched on much before; errors in patient care. Unlike most medical shows today, Monday Morning’s focal point is the doctor as human rather than hero, emphasizing that mistakes do occur.

There is no doubt that some professions are held to higher standards especially when it comes to our safety and wellbeing. We are more likely to care about our airline pilot’s performance than our travel agent’s. We hold our medical community to a similar higher standard. While no one is perfect, it is challenging to allow our healthcare providers to remain under the same umbrella. The issue of medical mistakes is a reality—and a harsh one at that. According to a report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), at least 1.5 million preventable medical errors occur in U.S. hospitals annually, with up to 98,000 deaths.

Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon and associate professor at Johns Hopkins, brought the issue of medical mistakes to the forefront with his book Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won't Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care. Giving us an inside look into the world of medicine, Dr. Makary’s book is a call to action to change the current medical landscape and defy mediocre patient care.

The solution? Medical accountability through transparency.

Ignoring peer errors and covering up incompetence has been a deep rooted issue within the medical culture for many years, and those bold enough to call out concerns rarely accomplish significant change. Improvements through transparency do not require individual accountability alone, but changes to the healthcare system as a whole. For example, in his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for changes to the Medicare system, stating “Our medical bills shouldn’t be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital. They should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive.”

Transparency first proved its value in 1989 when the New York Department of Health began collecting data on risk-adjusted mortality following coronary artery bypass graft surgery. The data revealed some hospital death rates as high as 18 percent. These findings were shared with the public and hospitals began to reassess their cardiac programs to address unique challenges. One hospital hired a full-time cardiac surgery chief while another established a quality assurance program. Medical improvements were made and within one year The New York Times reported death rates from cardiac surgery had decreased by 14 percent and by 41 percent in the fourth year.

Hospitals are also turning to information technologies such as electronic health records (EHRs) to minimize preventable error. According to the American Hospital Association, 35 percent of U.S. hospitals were utilizing EHRs in 2011 and adoption of EHRs continues to rapidly evolve. Use of EHRs has led to patient care improvements, through better communication among healthcare providers, more consistent tracking efforts, and less room for human error.

The Commonwealth Fund — a private foundation that works toward a high-performance health system that achieves better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency — conducted a study last summer to evaluate the use of EHRs in nine different hospitals. It was discovered that EHR use within hospitals led to advanced performance tracking and pinpointing areas of improvement. By identifying weak links in the system, hospitals were able to reassess program needs and improve quality care.

With changes being implemented to improve patient safety within our hospitals, there are things we as patients can do as well.  To become savvy patients, we must learn self-advocacy and recognize that it is our responsibility to educate ourselves, hold our doctors accountable and ask the uncomfortable questions we sometimes avoid. It is our health and our lives we are talking about after all. 

As patients, the medical community and our political leaders work towards a future of better health care transparency, an entirely new landscape of health-related communication will emerge. We have already begun to see transformation take place in the digital era with 72 percent of internet users turning to the web for health information within the past year. Resources like the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports also fuel transparency by listing hospital statistics for those interested in looking. Improved methods of information sharing can help empower the industry, pushing change in the right direction and leading to transparency across all fronts.