By Dr. Mercola
Harm and death caused by medical errors are a huge problem, and a major reason why the current, fatally flawed medical paradigm is in such desperate need of transformation.
Preventable medical mistakes are actually the third leading cause of death in the US, right after heart disease and cancer, claiming the lives of 210,000 Americans each year.
When you add in diagnostic errors, errors of omission, and failure to follow guidelines, the number skyrockets to an estimated 440,000 preventable hospital deaths each year.
According to the most recent estimates published last year,1 preventable medical mistakes account for about one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the US annually. This is more than 4.5 times higher than 1999 estimates.2
When you consider instances where medical errors cause some form of harm but not necessarily death, the incidence rate may be as high as 40,000 per day!3
As a general rule, staying out of the hospital is one of your best ways to prevent dying unnecessarily, and this is one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about sharing preventive health strategies with you -- tips like eating right, exercising, and reducing stress.
Exceptions would naturally include cases of accidental trauma or surgical emergencies. This is where modern medicine can be truly lifesaving.
Federal Government Ends Public Disclosure of Medical Errors
According to Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and author of the book Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Healthcare, eliminating medical errors must become a national priority.
But rather than tackling the issue, the US federal government has quietly decided to “solve” the problem by burying it and shielding it from scrutiny... USA Today4 recently reported that:
“The federal government this month quietly stopped publicly reporting when hospitals leave foreign objects in patients' bodies or make a host of other life-threatening mistakes.
The change, which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) denied last year that it was making, means people are out of luck if they want to search which hospitals cause high rates of problems such as air embolisms... or giving people the wrong blood type.
CMS removed data on eight of these avoidable ‘hospital acquired conditions’ (HACs) on its hospital comparison site last summer but kept it on a public spreadsheet that could be accessed by quality researchers, patient-safety advocates and consumers savvy enough to translate it. As of this month, it's gone. Now researchers have to calculate their own rates using claims data.”
Low-Income Areas Are More Susceptible to Poor Medical Care Outcomes
Statistics show that some hospitals are far riskier than others, which is why removing data for certain avoidable hospital acquired conditions is a step in the wrong direction.
On the average, you have a 54 percent lower risk of dying in a five-star rated hospital compared to the national average. Hospitals catering primarily to Medicare patients tend to be among the worst.
For example, hospital-acquired infections affect one in 25 patients across the US,5, 6 but among Medicare patients, this statistic jumps to one in nine.7
According to HealthGrades,8 which provides quality ratings on nearly 5,000 American hospitals, more than 164,470 in hospital complications could potentially have been avoided had all Medicare recipients from 2008 through 2010 gone to top rated hospitals for their procedures.
A recent article in Endocrine Today9 notes that diabetics living in low income areas may be 10 times more likely to have their feet or legs amputated compared to diabetics living in more affluent areas.
According to Carl D. Stevens, MD, MPH, who investigated these correlations: “When you have diabetes, where you live directly relates to whether you’ll lose a limb to the disease.”
Hospital-Acquired Infections on the Rise
Hospitals have become particularly notorious for spreading lethal infections. In the United States, more than two million people are affected by hospital-acquired infections each year, and anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 people die as a result. The most common hospital-acquired infections include:
- Central line-associated bloodstream infections
- Catheter-associated urinary tract infections
- Surgical site infections after surgery
- Clostridium difficile infections
Most of these cases could likely have been easily prevented with better infection control in hospitals—simple things such as doctors and nurses washing their hands between each patient, for example. Antibiotic overuse and inappropriate use also bears a heavy responsibility for creating this crisis. While antibiotics are certainly overprescribed in medicine, the largest source of antibiotic exposure is actually via your food.
Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US. Tens of millions of pounds of antibiotics are administered to American livestock each year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster.
The antibiotic residues in meat and dairy, as well as the resistant bacteria, are then passed on to you in the foods you eat. As just one example, no less than 80 different antibiotics are allowed in cows’ milk. The CDC10 has previously concluded that as much as 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is in fact linked to food.
We’ve Shifted from Science Based Medicine to Science BIASED Medicine
How in the world did conventional medical treatments become one of the top three leading causes of death? A major part of the problem stems from the fact that we’ve made a rather dramatic shift AWAY from true science based medicine. Instead, what we have now is science biased medicine, and we’re reaping the results thereof.
John Ioannidis, author of the 2005 paper “Why Most Published Research Findings are False”11, 12 published in PLoS Medicine, is one of the world's most important experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team of researchers have repeatedly shown that the majority of the conclusions biomedical researchers arrive at in their published studies are exaggerated or completely wrong.
Doctors use these studies—90 percent of which may be flawed or incorrect13—to prescribe drugs or recommend surgery. Is it any wonder then that American doctors kill at least 210,000 patients each year? With the odds stacked so sharply against a proper treatment, perhaps we’re lucky that the numbers aren’t even greater than that...
The Challenges of Science Bias
One of the first challenges you come across when trying to analyze the results of a study is to confirm that the study is free of any conflict of interest that would pervert the results and the meaning of the analysis. This means researching the author(s) of the study, its funders, and the motivations behind the design of the study. This is no easy task.
There’s also the problem of study findings being withheld and never published, simply because the results were not in favor of the treatment tested. The only real exception to this is researchers receiving grants from the federal government. They must register their trials on ClinicalTrials.gov, and they must publish their results regardless of the outcome.
Negative findings are just as critical as favorable findings. You may have twice as many negative findings as positive ones, but if only the positive ones (flawed or not) see the light of day, it will severely skew the overall “scientific basis” for the treatment. In essence, the treatment is based on scientific bias instead... Unfortunately, the vast majority of research is now being funded by industry, which has led to the systematic destruction of scientific integrity and validity.
Another factor that creates scientific bias is that the studies most likely to be published in the first place are those that oversell results that are considered important—results that oftentimes turn out to be false upon further investigation.14 Prestigious journals boast that they’re very selective, turning down the vast majority of submitted papers. The assumption is that they publish only the best scientific work. But Dr. Ioannidis' 2008 study, “Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science,”15 showed that out of the nearly 50 papers published in leading journals (studies that had been cited by more than 1,000 other scientists -- in other words, well-regarded research) almost a third were refuted by other studies within the span of a few years.
According to a 2013 paper published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings,16 reversals of recommendations based on new information are common across all classes of medical practice. Over the past decade alone, 146 previously established practices, treatments, and procedures have been reversed. The question is, are established treatments being replaced by seriously flawed, science biased ones? It seems likely that this is playing a very large role as to why the death toll from medical mistakes keeps climbing.
More Recent Evidence Showing a Strong Trend Toward Bias in Medical Research
In a recent article, Dr. Robert Pearl, MD brings up even more evidence showing that scientific bias is now par the course in modern medicine:17
- The 2012 report by the Cochrane Library, “Industry Sponsorship and Research Outcome,”18 concluded that industry-funded studies resulted in “more favorable results and conclusions” about the sponsored product compared to studies funded by independent parties.
- Earlier this year, Harvard Medical School published a study19 assessing the impact of conflicts of interest in plastic surgery. According to the authors: “Studies authored by groups with conflicts of interest are significantly associated with reporting lower surgical complications and therefore describing positive research findings.”
- Another recent study20 investigating the impact of conflicts of interest in wound therapy research also found that studies funded by a manufacturer were extraordinarily likely to be in favor of the sponsored product. The study looked at 24 peer-reviewed papers published in highly respected medical journals. Nineteen of them were funded by a manufacturer of one of two devices, and 18 of those manufacturer-funded studies ended up favoring the device made by the funding manufacturer; only one study came to a “neutral” conclusion.
As noted by Dr. Pearl:21 “From a statistical perspective, this is nearly an impossible outcome. Flip a coin 19 times and there’s a 1 in 524,288 chance it comes up heads each time. We might expect that if the two alternative products were relatively equivalent and the research truly unbiased, the product sold by the non-funding company should come out on top about half the time. To have no study go against the funding company yields nearly impossible odds. And if they are not equivalent, the better product should be identified in nearly all studies, regardless of the source of the researcher’s funding. There is no way to interpret these results, except to assume the researchers themselves were biased based on who paid for their work.”
The question is, how do we prevent this kind of bias from corrupting science? One solution is to shift the burden of financing research back onto the government. As noted by Dr. Pearl, adding a small fee to the sales price of drugs and medical devices could also be used to fund independent research. Another solution suggested in Dr. Pearl’s article could be for peer-reviewed journals to refuse to publish studies funded by one single company. By forcing competitors to fund joint research projects should theoretically promote more unbiased conclusions.
Hospitals Can Be Hazardous to Your Health in Multiple Ways
From my perspective, checking yourself into a hospital should be an option of last resort, when you have exhausted all others (barring an actual life-threatening emergency) and likely facing a potential fatal outcome if you don’t go into the hospital. Medical mistakes and potentially life-threatening infections are not the only risks you take when checking yourself into the hospital. They’re also notorious for giving you the wrong solution for your problem. Drugs and surgery, for example, are both widely overused options that can cause far more problems than they solve.
If a hospital stay is necessary, you would do well to heed the advice of Dr. Andrew Saul, co-author of the book Hospitals and Health: Your Orthomolecular Guide to a Shorter Hospital Stay.22 He suggests making sure you bring a personal advocate with you—a relative or friend who can speak up for you and ensure you’re given proper care if you are too incapacitated to do so yourself.
Help for Victims of Preventable Medical Errors
If you or a loved one find yourself a victim of a preventable medical mistake, you’re advised to start out by writing a letter or calling the patient relations department, which every hospital is mandated to have. If you’re still dissatisfied, write a letter to the hospital’s general council (attorney). You can also connect with patient communities such as:
- Citizens for Patient Safety23
- ProPublica Patient Harm24
Basic Tenets of Optimal Health
All in all, leading a common-sense, healthy lifestyle is your best bet to avoid unnecessary hospital visits. I believe there are certain basic tenets of optimal health that remain valid no matter what science decides to come up with next. Following these healthy lifestyle guidelines can go a very long way toward keeping you well and prevent 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. Generally speaking, you should be looking to focus your diet on whole, ideally organic, unprocessed foods. Avoid sugar, and fructose in particular. All forms of sugar have toxic effects when consumed in excess, and drive multiple disease processes in your body, not the least of which is insulin resistance, a major cause of chronic disease and accelerated aging. I believe the two primary keys for successful weight management are severely restricting carbohydrates (sugars, fructose, and grains) in your diet, and increasing healthy fat consumption. This will optimize insulin and leptin levels, which is key for maintaining a healthy weight and optimal health.
- Regular exercise: To make your exercise as effective as possible, make sure you include 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.
- 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 pure 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. 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. Sensible sun exposure is the ideal way to optimize your level.
- 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.