Federal Regulation: A Cure for Bad Medicine?

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Doctors, as they say, bury their mistakes. Now the National Academy of Sciences wants to learn something from those mistakes, and is asking Congress to take strong measures to protect patients from one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. — medical errors. The group issued a report that says such gaffes take a stunning 44,000 to 98,000 lives per year, more than the number of people who die annually in car accidents or from AIDS. The academy's solution? A new federal regulatory agency that would require doctors and hospitals to report deaths to a central database so that the government can analyze the errors and implement preventive measures. At present, doctors are regulated at state level, and most states don't require doctors to report their mistakes.

TIME health writer Christine Gorman says the proposal also could help instill a cultural change in the medical industry by making doctors feel it's OK to admit they make mistakes. "Medicine in the U.S. could be safer than it is," says Gorman, "because it doesn't take into account the fact that errors are going to occur, as inevitably they will. If you take that into account, you can do something about it." Doing something about it, according to the NAS, means creating some sort of federal regulatory agency, a kind of FAA for the practice of medicine. The academy carries significant weight on the Hill, and should expect White House support as well since the proposals mirror portions of President Clinton's proposed Patients' Bill of Rights. Which means the feds could soon be making sure that "First do no harm" is more than just a physician's motto.