In 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported that an estimated 98,000 people die each year as a result of medical errors. On July 29, 2005, nearly six years after that notable report, President Bush signed into law the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act of 2005 (the “Act”). This new legislation seeks to reduce the number of future medical errors by creating a national medical error reporting system.

The Act authorizes the Department of Health and Human Service (“HHS”) to certify independent patient safety organizations. Health care providers would voluntarily report medical errors to the patient safety organization, who would compile the information into a national database, analyze the data and make recommendations of ways in which future mistakes could be avoided.

To encourage voluntary reporting, the law protects the identity of individuals or entities that report medical errors. Moreover, the Act prohibits the use of any reported data as evidence in a malpractice suit. As Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist previously explained in the July 27, 2005 issue of CQ Today, “Fear of litigation has kept many health care providers . . . from sharing information if a mistake is inadvertently made. People are afraid to share their internal data. It might expose them to a ruinous lawsuit. And that drives reporting of the medical errors underground . . . . This bill will change all that, will lift this threat of litigation.”

In addition to barring the use of reported information for lawsuits, the new law also prohibits accrediting bodies and regulatory agencies from taking action against a provider based on reported data. Furthermore, the law forbids an employer from taking any retaliatory action against an employee for reporting medical errors.

Following the bill signing ceremony, J. Edward Hill, M.D., President of the American Bar Association, expressed support for the Act. “The health care community has long been committed to improving patient safety, and significant progress has been made through new technology, research and education,” said Dr. Hill. “This patient safety law is the catalyst we need to transform the current culture of blame and punishment into one of open communication and prevention . . . . The true winners today are out patients, who will benefit from improved safety and quality health care nationwide.”