In March the Florida Times-Union, one of the South's larger papers, published a downright humiliating critique by its reader advocate, Wayne Ezell, of an article the paper had run assailing alleged medical malpractice at the Jacksonville Naval Hospital. Ezell said the article, which was written in sensational tones, mostly rehashed earlier coverage but had "several unwarranted assertions" added in. For example: the story suggested sweepingly (and in apparent contradiction to its own reporting) that the hospital failed to take action against its doctors when they committed mistakes, and its photo captions assumed the truth of unproven malpractice allegations by two families.
Of particular interest was the article's statistical sleight of hand. Ezell:
The fifth paragraph of the story said: "A Times-Union review of recent state and federal records found that the 60-bed Jacksonville Naval Hospital is sued for medical negligence at nearly five times the rate of civilian hospitals in Northeast Florida."...
It turns out the comparison was for lawsuits filed in only a two-year period, 2002 and 2003. The newspaper has identified 18 claims settled in negotiations or in court since 2001. Ten of those cases were filed in that two-year period.
So the assertion that the hospital "is sued . . . at nearly five times the rate" was based on 10 lawsuits filed in a two-year period ending two years ago. At least, the sweeping assertion should have explained the limited time frame.
Some may question whether the number of lawsuits filed per number of beds yields a meaningful comparison or should be the only one used. What the story described as a 60-bed hospital is actually seven facilities in Florida and Georgia, which employs nearly 2,400 people, including 200 physicians. According to sidebar data provided with the story, those facilities performed more than 20,000 surgical procedures and delivered more than 7,000 babies in the five-year period that also brought attention to the 18 malpractice claims.
A Navy spokesman says if you go by National Practitioner Data Bank numbers, doctors at the hospital actually face a below-average rate of malpractice charges, though direct comparisons can be treacherous because of the legal restraints on suits by active duty military personnel.
"The story overreached in important areas and was seriously off the mark in other areas," Ezell wrote. "Readers, not to mention the hospital, its staff and those it serves, deserve better." (Wayne Ezell, "Navy hospital story fell short", Mar. 12)(reg). In short, the piece was quite an embarrassment. Wonder who sourced it?