One man’s $20 million medical malpractice settlement with a Washington State health system may yield systemwide improvements that save millions from misdiagnoses, mistreatments and doctors’ errors. As a Virginia personal injury lawyer who has helped many patients harmed by preventable mistakes, this news encourages me greatly because it represents a willingness by a major hospital company to not merely accept responsibility, but also to work proactively to protect people moving forward.
The case prompting such change started in the summer of 2013, when August de los Reyes, then the lead designer for Microsoft’s Xbox, fell out of bed and injured his back. A lifelong sufferer from the degenerative autoimmune disease, anklylosing spondylitis (AS), de los Reyes knew he may have fractured one or more of his fragile vertebrae and told multiple physicians this at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, WA, on several occasions. Physicians treated his pain for more than a week but took no action to stabilize or repair his spine.
After his pain became unbearable, de los Reyes convinced doctors to perform an MRI on his entire back. Patient-handling errors made while positioning him for imaging turned a fracture into a full break. The worsened injury irreversibly damaged de los Reyes’ spinal cord, and he remains in wheelchair to this day. One bright note is that the loss of mobility contributed to Microsoft’s efforts to make products that people with limited motor functions can use more easily.
As part of its settlement with de los Reyes, who recently became design manager for Pinterest, Overlake agreed to cooperate with a committee of outside experts to identify each place that communications between patient and health care providers broke down. The exhaustive case study will then be used to develop new ways of collecting and analyzing injury information, dealing with patients in imaging centers and intervening sooner and more effectively in cases where disability or death are possible outcomes. Lessons learned and best practices will then be shared with other health systems.
This systemic, cooperative and solution-oriented approach makes a lot of sense. It also, unfortunately, is almost unique. Positive procedural changes often follow major medical malpractice settlements and judgements – surgery checklists, staffing additions, centralized data collection – but those good ideas tend to be implemented in isolation and geared more toward covering a hospital’s liability than achieving best patient outcomes. It is truly heartening to learn of the better response in Washington. Let’s hope health systems all across the country follow Overlake’s lead.