Death of Sridevi's mother is recalled, as
America gets tough on medical errors
J M Shenoy
In a way, it was not a death in vain. When D Ehud Arbit operated on the wrong side of the brain of Rajeswari Ayyappan, mother of movie star Sridevi, five years ago, the mistake was widely reported in the American media.
Ayyappan died shortly after the botched operation, and Arbit was dismissed from the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the hospital had a financial settlement, reportedly worth several millions, with the Ayyappan family.
Rajeswari Ayyappan had lost most of her memory following the surgery at the Memorial-Sloan Kettering.
Arbit was in news recently when he was asked to stop practicing medicine following another death under his care. Despite the Ayyappan incident, he had continued to be gainfully employed and had become the head of the neuro-surgery department of Staten Island.
Health officials say it is the kind of bungling Arbit has been blamed for that has brought wide attention to medical malpractice and errors, and led to President Bill Clinton's proposal on Tuesday for a program that would require hospitals to disclose mistakes that resulted in the death or serious disability of patients.
Many doctors in the Indian American community welcomed the proposal, adding that India should also have similar programs. Dr Navin Shah, former president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, had proposed a similar program to Indian medical authorities several years ago.
But many doctors, particularly immigrant physicians, as well as the powerful American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association, oppose the plan that has to be approved by the Congress.
They say the plan, however well intentioned it is, could lead to a flurry of medical malpractice lawsuits.
"Malpractice lawsuits are at times frivolous or are filed by grieving survivors who do not want to accept that a particular death was unavoidable despite our best efforts," says an Indian doctor who asked for anonymity. "Naturally, we end up paying heavy insurance."
While medical malpractice insurance is a heavy burden to any doctor, to an immigrant physician, who often has to pay back number of loans, it becomes even a bigger burden, the Indian doctor said.
Clinton's proposal follows an Institute of Medicine study last year that showed 44,000 to 98,000 people die annually as a result of medical mistakes. More people die of medical errors than of breast cancer or AIDS, the Washington-based institute revealed.
Excerpts from the study made page one news in USA Today and many widely circulated newspapers. Many American states do not have mandatory reporting systems. Clinton wants every hospital in the country to report serious medical errors. He also wants to set up a Center for Patient Safety that will determine, among other things, types of errors doctors make and devise means to prevent them.
Clinton disagrees with the critics of his proposal.
"It is a balanced, common sense approach based on prevention, not punishment,
based on problem-solving, not blame-placing," Clinton says.
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