Should You Receive an Adverse Event Letter

Would you know if something went wrong while you are in the hospital?

Would you be aware of a potential mistake that was made in your care?

Medical mistakes happen.

For example, surgeries may be performed inaccurately or medication may be administered incorrectly. Sometimes the effects of these mistakes are not immediately known but there could be long lasting implications for the individual was received the incorrect care.

Many states require that adverse event letters (also known as adverse event reports) be sent to patients if something went wrong while they were in the hospital. However, patients are not always provided with the required letter.

What is an Adverse Event?
Each state defines the term adverse event differently. Depending on the state definition, an adverse event can be something that happened that endangered the life of the patient, something that happened that was not part of the authorized medical treatment, something that was an error in medical treatment or even a “near miss” event where the patient was almost the victim of a mistake.

Adverse event letters are not required to be sent to patients when patients have been informed of the likely risks of a surgery or procedure that may be unavoidable. For example, if a patient has heart surgery and the surgical team performed the surgery accurately and according to all applicable medical standards then a patient may still suffer a subsequent heart attack. The subsequent heart attack is not an adverse medical event because it did not occur due to the hospital’s negligent care of the patient. However, if the surgical team that performed the heart surgery mistakenly left a surgical instrument in the patient’s chest cavity then that would be an adverse event that should require a letter to the patient in the states which require adverse event letter reporting.

Why Are Adverse Event Letters Not Always Sent to Patients?
Hospitals fail to provide adverse event letters to patients for various reasons. Some states require that all adverse event letters that are sent to patients also be sent to the state which can mean increased oversight by the state public health agency. Some states further require that all adverse events that are reported to patients also be made available to the public, typically via a website with all personally identifiable information retracted. This can lead to decreased public confidence in the hospital and possibly fewer patients choosing elective procedures in the hospital.

Why Are Adverse Event Letters Important?
An adverse event letter can alert a patient to a potential medical problem of which the patient would not otherwise be aware. For example, if a surgical item such as a sponge or surgical instrument was inadvertently left inside a patient during a surgery the patient may not be immediately aware of the foreign object in his or her body. However, over time the foreign object could become painful or lead to life threatening infections.

An adverse event letter would alert a patient to the problem and allow the patient to seek the advice of a medical doctor and decide how best to mitigate the problem. Without the notification provided in the adverse event letter the patient may not be able to seek the appropriate medical care and could suffer severe medical complications, including death, in the future.

Further, an adverse event letter could inform a patient about a potential medical malpractice claim against the hospital, doctor or hospital staff. This is particularly important if the patient experienced pain or suffered financially as a result of the adverse event because the knowledge of what caused the adverse event could allow the patient to recover damages against the hospital, doctor of hospital staff.