Medico-legal autopsies as a source of information to improve patient safety

Burkhard Madea
Legal Medicine 2009, 11 Suppl 1: S76-9
Clear data on the epidemiology of medical malpractice are missing, at least for Germany. Especially data on the frequency of malpractice claims in penal and civil law are not available. However, from epidemiological and healthcare research some data on the frequency of adverse events (AE), preventable adverse events (PAE) and negligent adverse events (NAE) are available. According to a review of the German Alliance of Patient Safety adverse events can be expected in 5-10%, preventable adverse events in 2-4%, negligent adverse events in about 1% and lethal outcome in about 0.1% of hospitalized patients. However, these data are not compatible with figures from civil and penal law and there seems to be a great "litigation gap". Data on malpractice cases are available from the files of the arbitration committees on medical malpractice, files of liability insurance companies and files of the institutes of forensic medicine. However, these files are not complete and data sources may have some interferences. The arbitration committees are, however, mainly dealing with living patients. Lethal cases are a special subgroup and the best available data source are the files of the institutes of forensic medicine. This subgroup is of special importance since death is the most severe outcome of medical malpractice and the reproach to have caused the death of a patient by medical negligence is the most severe malpractice claim. From a retrospective multicentre study on autopsies performed in cases of medical malpractice claims (altogether 101.358 autopsies, 4450 due to medical malpractice claims) the most important data will be presented (disciplines concerned, cause of accusation, classification of accusation, causes of preliminary proceedings, occupational group and number of approved medical malpractice, outcome of medical malpractice proceedings). However, these data are not only of a descriptive value but have utmost importance also for risk analysis and to increase patient safety. A thorough evaluation of serious incidences, although less sophisticated than a root cause analysis, produces far more information than the usual hospital reporting system. Identification and evaluation of errors as well as reporting of errors may also contribute to the prevention of errors which is among other medical disciplines also a task of forensic medicine.

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