By Dr. Mercola
It’s a sad state of affairs when the health care system you’re depending on to make you well ends up damaging your health, but this is precisely what happens in an alarming number of cases.
Adding to the tragedy, most of these adverse events are preventable, that is, they’re being caused by the conventional medical system itself – not by a person’s underlying disease or health problem.
If you’re a senior, the risk of medical harm when you’re seeking health care at a hospital, doctor’s office, surgery center, nursing home, emergency room, or other health clinic is especially high, if not outright unacceptable.
Nearly 20% of Seniors Are Injured by Medical Care
A new study of more than 12,500 Medicare patients (with an average age of 76) found that nearly one in five suffer from medical injuries when receiving care.1 Injuries included:
- Being given the wrong medication
- Having an allergic reaction to a medication
- Receiving treatment that led to more complications of an existing medical problem
Those who had experienced a medical injury had a death rate nearly double those who had not, along with greater use of medical services and increased health care costs in the year following the injury.
While the media often focuses on medical injuries in hospitals, this study actually found that two-thirds of injuries occurred during outpatient care (such as doctor’s offices).
Previous studies have found about 13.5 percent of hospitalized patients suffer from adverse medical events, but the featured study found about 19 percent of seniors are harmed by medical care.
Older people, men, those with lower incomes, and people with disabilities were at an even greater risk. Further, the risk of an adverse medical event rose 27 percent for each chronic medical condition a person had.2 The study’s lead researcher noted:
"These injuries are caused by the medical care or management rather than any underlying disease… The rate of these injuries is probably higher than has been estimated.”
Preventable Medical Errors May Be the Third Leading Cause of Death in the US
While this may sound shocking to some, as a physician for over 30 years treating tens of thousands of patients, it is my observation that conventional medicine, which is focused on diagnostic tests, drugs, and surgical interventions, clearly kills far more people than it saves or helps.
The lethality of the system is in part due to side effects, whether “expected” or not. But preventable errors also account for an absolutely staggering number of deaths.
According to 2013 research into the cost of medical mistakes in terms of lives lost, 210,000 Americans are killed by preventable hospital errors each year.3
When deaths related to diagnostic errors, errors of omission, and failure to follow guidelines are included, the number skyrockets to an estimated 440,000 preventable hospital deaths each year!
And when you consider the featured study, which found two-thirds of medical errors were occurring outside of hospitals, it means the actual death toll from conventional medicine may be far higher than anyone expected. According to the study, serious, non-lethal harm is likely 10- to 20-fold higher than lethal harm.
Already, these medical error estimates are more than 4.5 times higher than 1999 estimates published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM),4 making medical errors the third-leading cause of death in the US, right after heart disease and cancer. These are frightening numbers that deserve immediate attention, as the researchers noted:
“In a sense, it does not matter whether the deaths of 100,000, 200,000 or 400,000 Americans each year are associated with PAEs [preventable adverse events] in hospitals. Any of the estimates demands assertive action on the part of providers, legislators, and people who will one day become patients.
Yet, the action and progress on patient safety is frustratingly slow; however, one must hope that the present, evidence-based estimate of 400,000+ deaths per year will foster an outcry for overdue changes and increased vigilance in medical care to address the problem of harm to patients who come to a hospital seeking only to be healed.”
Seniors Are Playing Russian Roulette with Polypharmacy
The word “polypharmacy” simply means "many drugs," but refers to instances where an individual is taking too many drugs -- either because more drugs are prescribed than are clinically indicated, or when the sheer number of pills simply becomes a burden for the patient.
According to statistics from the Kaiser Health Foundation, if you're an "average" 65-year-old (or older) adult living in the US, you fill more than 31 prescriptions per year! And this does not take into account over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, which would easily push these numbers significantly higher.5
This is the definition of polypharmacy, and it puts seniors at incredible risk. Deaths due to unintentional drug overdoses have increased roughly five-fold since 19906 -- and the risk of all adverse reactions, including serious and even life-threatening complications, goes up dramatically the more drugs you take. The bottom line is, if you're on a prescription drug, and answer yes to ANY of the questions below, you may be at increased risk of polypharmacy, even if you take your medications as prescribed:
- Do you take herbs, vitamins, or OTC products?
- Do you have to take medicine more than once a day?
- Do you suffer from arthritis?
- Do you use different pharmacies to fill your prescriptions?
- Do you have poor eyesight or hearing?
- Do you live alone?
- Do you sometimes forget to take your medication?
Ironically, another significant problem of polypharmacy is that it leads to even more prescriptions! Yes, the side effects of polypharmacy are oftentimes confused with symptoms of yet another disease or health problem, setting into motion a vicious cycle of decreasing health followed by more drugs rather than fewer. This is but one route via which the modern medical system ends up harming instead of healing.
Top Medical Errors to Watch Out For
Hospitals often make such egregious errors as treating the wrong patient, leaving behind surgical tools in a person after surgery, losing patients, or operating on the wrong body part. Air bubbles in your blood after a chest tube is removed, mix-ups involving medical tubing, and hospital-acquired infections are other examples of sometimes fatal medical errors that are all too common – and preventable.
More than two million people are affected by hospital-acquired infections each year, and a whopping 100,000 people die as a result. According to the 2011 “Health Grades Hospital Quality in America” report, analysis of approximately 40 million Medicare patients' records from 2007 through 2009 showed that one in nine patients developed such hospital-acquired infections!7
The saddest part is, most of these cases could likely have been easily prevented with better infection control in hospitals—simple routines such as doctors and nurses washing their hands between each patient, for example. Be aware and make sure doctors, nurses, and other health care providers wash their hands before touching you. If you feel uncomfortable speaking up… realize that doing so could literally save your life. It’s important to understand, too, that while some adverse medical events are realized immediately, others may not be felt for months or even years. As the featured study explained:8
“The harmful outcomes may be realized immediately, delayed for days or months, or even delayed many years. An example of immediate harm is excess bleeding because of an overdose of an anticoagulant drug such as that which occurred to the twins born to Dennis Quaid and his wife. An example of harm that is not apparent for weeks or months is infection with Hepatitis C virus as a result of contaminated chemotherapy equipment.”
How to Minimize Your Risk of Medical Errors
Dr. Martin Makary is the author of The New York Times bestselling book Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Healthcare, which is a story about the dangerous practices and mistakes of modern medicine. In the interview above, you can learn some important tips to stay safe if you find yourself in a hospital.
Once you’re hospitalized, you’re immediately at risk for medical errors, so one of the best safeguards is to have someone there with you. Dr. Andrew Saul has also written an entire book on the issue of safeguarding your health while hospitalized. Frequently, you’re going to be relatively debilitated, especially post-op when you’re under the influence of anesthesia, and you won’t have the opportunity to see the types of processes that are going on. Dr. Makary agrees it’s important to have someone there to act as your personal advocate, or to take the time to stay with your loved one who is hospitalized. This is particularly important for pediatric patients and the elderly.
“Sometimes, we rely on a competent talking patient to help verify what we’re doing before we go in the operating room. But if we got somebody who’s not mentally coherent because they’re elderly or a kid and there’s no family member around, these are danger zones. These are high-risk areas for medical mistakes,” Dr. Makary warns. “It’s important to ask what procedure’s being done or why is the procedure being done. 'Can I talk to the doctor?' You have a right to know about what’s being done to you or your loved one in the hospital. When you’ve got a kid in the hospital, I think it’s particularly important to ask the questions.”
For every medication given in the hospital, ask, “What is this medication? What is it for? What’s the dose?” Take notes. Ask questions. Building a relationship with the nurses can go a long way. Also, when they realize they’re going to be questioned, they’re more likely to go through that extra step of due diligence to make sure they’re getting it right—that’s human nature.
Dr. Makary also co-developed a checklist for surgeons to use before surgery or any other hospital procedure. His research partner, Peter Pronovost, created a checklist in the ICU for patients that are in the intensive care unit. The World Health Organization (WHO) ended up taking an interest in their checklists and used some of their principles to develop the official World Health Organization checklist.
The WHO surgical safety checklist and implementation manual,9 which is part of the campaign “Safe Surgery Saves Lives” that Drs. Makary and Pronovost were a part of, can be downloaded here. If a loved one is in the hospital, print it out and bring it with you, as this can help you protect your family member or friend from preventable errors in care. Of course, no one is perfect. Mistakes will be made. And with more transparency, these mistakes will be known. So, what can you do should you find yourself a victim of a preventable medical mistake? Dr. Makary suggests:
“Ask to talk to the doctor about that mistake. If you’re not satisfied, write a letter or call the patient relations department. Every hospital is mandated to have this service. They are set up to answer your concerns. If you’re not satisfied with that, write a letter to the hospital’s lawyer, the general council. And you will see attention to the issue, because you’ve gone through the right channels. We don’t want to encourage millions of lawsuits out there. But you know, when people voice what happened, what went wrong, and the nature of the preventable mistake, hospitals can learn from their mistakes. Sometimes they’re taking a lot of attention now to prevent mistakes from happening again. You should let that mistake be known.”
Take Control of Your Health to Avoid Being Harmed by Medical Care
One of the reasons I am so passionate about sharing the information on this site about healthy eating, exercise, and stress management is because it can help keep you OUT of the hospital and other health-care danger zones. You can use this site to find well-proven strategies that will address most chronic health problems. Please remember you can always use the search engine at the top of every page on the site to review previous articles we have written. If you have an acute injury or life-threatening medical situation, of course you need to seek immediate competent care.
However, the very first step for any chronic health challenge would be to follow my Nutrition Plan, as that will likely improve, if not completely eliminate, more than 80 percent of your health challenges. In the unusual case where you are not getting better, it will be wise to seek a health coach or medical professional that can guide you through complicating factors that may be impairing your progress. Typically, the time-honored local social networking strategy works well. Ask people in your local community who the best practitioners are for your problem.
You can typically find many good referrals from people in independently owned health food stores. But be sure to get a clear consensus and ask as many people as you can, as choosing a doctor is a very important step, and you want to make sure you get it right. Additionally, following these healthy lifestyle guidelines can go a very long way toward keeping you well and preventing chronic disease of all kinds:
- Proper food choices: For a comprehensive guide on which foods to eat and which to avoid, see my nutrition plan.
- Regular exercise: Even if you're eating the healthiest diet in the world, you still need to exercise to reach the highest levels of health, and you need to be exercising effectively, which means including high-intensity activities into your rotation. High-intensity interval-type training boosts human growth hormone (HGH) production, which is essential for optimal health, strength, and vigor. HGH also helps boost weight loss. So along with core-strengthening exercises, strength training, and stretching, I highly recommend that twice a week you do Peak Fitness exercises, which raise your heart rate up to your anaerobic threshold for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a 90-second recovery period.
- Stress reduction: You cannot be optimally healthy if you avoid addressing the emotional component of your health and longevity, as your emotional state plays a role in nearly every physical disease -- from heart disease and depression, to arthritis and cancer. Meditation, prayer, social support, and exercise are all viable options that can help you maintain emotional and mental equilibrium. I also strongly believe in using simple tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to address deeper, oftentimes hidden, emotional problems.
- Drink plenty of clean water.
- Maintain a healthy gut: About 80 percent of your immune system resides in your gut, and research is stacking up showing that probiotics—beneficial bacteria—affect your health in a myriad of ways; it can even influence your ability to lose weight. A healthy diet is the ideal way to maintain a healthy gut, and regularly consuming traditionally fermented foods is the easiest, most cost-effective way to ensure optimal gut flora.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels: Research has shown that increasing your vitamin D levels can reduce your risk of death from ALL causes. Be sure you are getting sensible sun exposure to allow for vitamin D production in your skin.
- Avoid as many chemicals, toxins, and pollutants as possible: This includes tossing out your toxic household cleaners, soaps, personal hygiene products, air fresheners, bug sprays, lawn pesticides, and insecticides, just to name a few, and replacing them with non-toxic alternatives.
- Get plenty of high-quality sleep: Regularly catching only a few hours of sleep can hinder metabolism and hormone production in a way that is similar to the effects of aging and the early stages of diabetes. Chronic sleep loss may speed the onset or increase the severity of age-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and memory loss.