When July began on Tuesday an important new Oregon law also went into effect. As reported by The Oregonian a new “mediation program… (gives) patients and their families an option besides suing when medical errors happen.”
The measure was a priority for Gov. John Kitzhaber and, as the newspaper notes, became law following input from both trial lawyers and the Oregon Medical Association. The new law “is intended to cut down on lawsuits and boost the reporting of medical errors to help improve health care practices.”
Some practical details remain to be worked out, and it will take months if not several years before we can say with certainty how well the program is working in practice, but as a public health matter we should all hope that the Early Discussion and Resolution Program, as it is formally known, performs as expected. As I have written in this space as recently as last month, medical mistakes remain far too common in our state and reducing or eliminating them is made more difficult by a reporting system that remains, to a great extent, voluntary. As a result, doctors and patients alike are often working from inadequate data. A system that improved both the volume and the quality of data on medical mistakes would be a huge boon to everyone.
As described by The Oregonian, patients or family members will now be able to file formal notices when they believe a medical mistake has occurred. “The notice triggers what is intended to be a confidential discussion in which a provider or health care facility can even offer an apology or financial settlement. If that is not successful the patient or their family can sue.” While the system does potentially make suits more difficult to file, especially if doctors or hospitals choose to drag the process out, it is important to remember that under this law Oregonians have not lost their right to take grievances to our courts for a fair hearing.
As an Oregon attorney who has worked on medical mistake cases in the past I will be watching this new law closely. If it lives up to the expectations of its strongest advocates it could prove to be a win-win situation for patients, doctors and public health in general. That is provided, however, that a well-intentioned measure does not become a way for negligent doctors and hospitals to avoid responsibility for their own mistakes.