Medical malpractice has been a growing issue in recent years for both the medical profession and the legal community. Approximately 98,000 Americans die every year as the result of surgical errors and mistakes made by hospitals (misdiagnoses, incorrect dosages, incorrect prescriptions, etc.) Many of these cases are not even reported. Lawsuits arising from medical malpractice are usually long, drawn-out and complex. Cases that go to trial may take years to resolve.

A recent innovation may make it much easier for all parties involved.  Developed at the University of Toronto, the device is similar to data recorders, more commonly known as “black boxes.” These are used to record data aboard airplanes and ground vehicles such as tractor-trailer rigs and even some passenger cars. The medical version records the surgeon’s actions during an operation. Data collected during the procedure can be used to shed light on any errors made by a surgeon that might have led to a patient’s injury or death.

The implications for malpractice litigation is huge – yet some members of the medical profession are apprehensive about the use of the device, expressing concern that plaintiffs would use the data collected as evidence against them in litigation. Of course, such data could just as well prove that a surgeon was not responsible for a patient’s poor outcome.

In any event, lawmakers in New York and and Wisconsin have introduced legislation that would give patients the right to have video recordings made of their surgical procedures. The Wisconsin bill, known as “Julie’s Law,” was named for Julie Ribenzer, who died during a routine breast augmentation operation after receiving four times the amount of anesthesia recommended. The surgeon in the case was not qualified to perform the operation, and the one who administered the anesthesia had no certified medical training. The late Ms. Ribenzer’s family has been instrumental in the creation of the bill, which was introduced in the Wisconsin state legislature earlier this year.

“Julie’s Law” is meeting considerable opposition from the Wisconsin Hospital Association.  They have called it “ill-conceived legislation,” stating that they “are disappointed with this legislation and the rationale behind its creation.” However, Democratic State Representative Christine Sinicki, who sponsored the bill, believes it will good for patients and surgeons.  Speaking to an ABC affiliate in Florida, Sinicki said, “I think it’s two-pronged. It is about protecting the patients – but it could also be about protecting the doctor, too.”

It is anticipated that such laws will eventually be enacted in all fifty states.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.