Enhancing Patient Safety: The Role of Legal Accountability in Preventing Wrongful Deaths in Healthcare

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In healthcare, every decision, every action, and every protocol is aimed at one ultimate goal: 

Saving lives. 

However, despite the tireless efforts of healthcare professionals, wrongful deaths still occur, leaving behind a trail of grief and raising questions about what more can be done to prevent such tragedies. 

In this article, we delve deep into the heart of the matter, exploring the root causes of wrongful deaths, the impact they have on individuals and communities, and how healthcare organizations can facilitate change through legal preparedness. 

Stay with us!

1. Reasons for Wrongful Deaths in the U.S. Healthcare System

Despite progress in healthcare, racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. still face entrenched disparities in access and quality of care.

The alarming reality is that black women (and infants) are disproportionately affected by poor patient outcomes and tragically high death rates in pregnancy or childbirth, facing a risk of dying 2 to 3 times higher than other groups. 

This stark disparity calls for urgent attention.

It is worth noting that the rest of the population is also affected, and these issues are often rooted in systemic issues such as:

  • Non-universal healthcare: Instead of having one healthcare system that provides healthcare coverage to all citizens, regardless of their ability to pay, the US healthcare is primarily provided through a combination of private health insurance, government programs (e.g., Medicare), and out-of-pocket payments
  • Uneven access to healthcare: Healthcare is not uniformly available throughout the whole US, which means limited availability of healthcare services and longer waiting times in underserved communities.
  • Expensive healthcare: The average cost of hospital stay in the U.S. equals about $13,000. Giving birth costs even more, going up to $35,000 for more complicated births (e.g., via caesarian sections.)
  • Understaffed healthcare facilities: Many hospitals in the US face challenges regarding the availability of medical staff, beds, supplies, and medical equipment.
  • Systemic racism: Implicit bias among healthcare providers often leads to unequal treatment in healthcare settings.

As you can see, wrongful deaths in hospital settings reveal a deeper issue that transcends individual facilities.

While hospitals do bear responsibility for ensuring patient safety and providing quality care, they are not the sole entities to blame, and change needs to happen throughout the entire system.

2. How Legal Preparedness Helps Healthcare Organizations Prevent Wrongful Deaths

So, we’ve established that health organizations aren’t the root cause of wrongful deaths in the US.

What now?

Now let’s explore whether (and how) these facilities can aid in resolving the previously mentioned systemic issues. 

One way that healthcare organizations can help prevent wrongful deaths and reduce risks is to inform themselves about their legal responsibilities and liabilities related to their work. 

For starters, healthcare organizations should be familiar with the eligibility criteria related to providing care to patients who may not have insurance or who are covered by government programs like Medicaid. 

This especially entails familiarity with regulations regarding billing and reimbursement.

One other thing that many healthcare providers often overlook is that they have a legal responsibility to communicate effectively – both among themselves and with patients.

Poor patient-doctor communication has been linked with:

  • Misdiagnoses and delayed diagnoses
  • Misunderstandings about the correct dosages of medication
  • Transfusion errors
  • Inadequate patient care, especially during childbirth
  • More frequent readmissions and complications 

That’s why learning the principles of effective communication, such as using clear and simple language, actively listening to patients’ concerns, and providing information on time, is paramount for healthcare providers.

Closely tied to the previous legal responsibility of healthcare providers is also the responsibility to inform patients about their medical condition.

Informed consent includes providing patients with information about proposed treatments or procedures, their risks and benefits, and any alternative options available so that they can make informed decisions about their healthcare.

It’s important that the patient truly understands what they’re consenting to and why, meaning that all of their questions and concerns regarding their health status should be addressed by the medical staff. 

The main takeaway is that strengthening legal preparedness is not just advisable for healthcare providers; it is their responsibility.  

Seeking guidance from lawyers specializing in HIPAA, EMTALA, Anti-Kickback, and Stark laws, like the ones here, can provide healthcare facilities with expert guidance on the legal responsibilities and liabilities associated with these regulations.

3. Healthcare Organizations Challenges in Wrongful Death Prevention

Although healthcare organizations strive to improve patient outcomes and minimize risks, it’s important to remember that healthcare providers are humans too.

Despite their unwavering dedication and adherence to the protocols, mistakes can still happen. 

So, while increasingly informed patients hold higher expectations of healthcare systems, they also often forget that, for instance, patients with complex health issues are often more susceptible to complications. 

This means that treatments for them often yield less predictable outcomes, which puts immense pressure on healthcare providers to handle patient expectations, medical complexities, and the inherent risks of healthcare delivery. 

Furthermore, we must recognize, yet again, that the US healthcare system is severely understaffed and often lacking essential resources. This further complicates efforts to provide optimal care and prevent adverse outcomes. 

To overcome these challenges, regulatory changes are imperative, along with some novel solutions to manage the rising supply costs and labor expenses.

This may involve adjustments to reimbursement rates or the implementation of cost-saving measures. Apart from that, healthcare organizations can seek efficiencies in their operations, negotiate better contracts with suppliers, and explore alternative staffing models to reduce the financial pressures of high inflation rates.

4. 3 Legal Tips for Healthcare Organizations to Improve Patient Outcomes

1. Conduct Regular Legal Audits

A legal audit enables healthcare organizations to review their compliance with all the laws and regulations governing healthcare practices (e.g., HIPAA, EMTALA).

By conducting a regular legal audit (at least once or twice a year), a healthcare facility can identify potential risks to patients and address them proactively before they lead to potential liabilities.

This proactive approach ensures that the facility is meeting all of its legal responsibilities, which can help reduce the risk of legal penalties and fines associated with subpar and unsafe patient care.

2. Train Medical Staff on Legal and Ethical Aspects of Patient Care

Legal standards and ethical considerations are well-defined in patient care, leaving little room for medical staff to have ethical dilemmas or uncertainties about the appropriate patient care.

If your healthcare organization is showing signs of staff experiencing such dilemmas or uncertainties, it may be necessary to provide additional training and support to ensure compliance with legal and ethical standards in patient care.

This sort of training should include:

  • Understanding laws and regulations governing healthcare.
  • Familiarity with ethical principles and frameworks to guide decision-making in challenging situations.
  • Education on informed consent, patient confidentiality, and patient rights.
  • Mastering effective communication with patients, families, and colleagues to ensure clear and respectful interactions.
  • Education on culturally sensitive care.
  • Handling accurate and timely medical documentation.
  • Training on maintaining professionalism in patient care.

Now, let’s move on to our third and final legal tip for healthcare organizations.

3. Establish Protocols for Adverse Events

When adverse events happen in patient care, standardized protocols and procedures can help healthcare providers respond effectively.

These protocols should be a summary of everything your healthcare facility has learned from past adverse events to prevent future incidents.

They should:

  • Establish the roles and responsibilities of your healthcare providers.
  • Promote transparency in how adverse events are handled.
  • Outline reporting processes to internal and external bodies.
  • Detail the steps for adverse event investigations.
  • Detail how to communicate adverse events with the patients and their families.

Developing such protocols sounds a bit challenging?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered on that as well. 

4. How Healthcare Organizations Can Benefit from Legal Expertise 

All hospital policies and procedures need to comply with various regulations and standards to ensure good patient outcomes.

That includes not only the legislation we’ve already mentioned in this article, but also accreditation, patient safety, quality improvement, and medical ethics standards compliance.

Legal experts can guide healthcare organizations through all the relevant acts and help them address any areas of non-compliance.

Another thing that legal experts can help healthcare facilities with is risk management.

If your facility is at a malpractice or compliance risk, or maybe it’s had recent patient confidentiality breaches, lawyers can help with avoiding costly lawsuits and penalties by providing guidance on best practices and keeping your policies up to date.

This way, you can protect your organization’s reputation and its bottom line. 

Here are some other things that legal experts can help healthcare facilities with:

  • Developing patient care and employee conduct policies.
  • Patient rights, informed consent, and end-of-life decisions training from a legal standpoint.
  • Adapting to legislative changes.
  • Representing in legal proceedings (e.g., in case of a wrongful death lawsuit) and mitigating financial risks associated with legal claims.
  • Advising on settlement negotiations and strategies to minimize liability.

Unsure whether your facility’s policies are up to date and in compliance? 

Consider seeking legal advice to protect your organization’s reputation and financial health.