By Dr. Mercola
If medical errors were a disease, they would be the sixth leading cause of death in America, writes surgeon Dr. Marty Makary in the Wall Street Journal.1
By some estimates, they may actually be the leading cause… These errors kill the equivalent of four jumbo jets' worth of passengers… every week, Dr. Makary says, and this is likely a conservative estimate.
According to the 2011 Health Grades Hospital Quality in America Study, the incidence rate of medical harm occurring in the United States is estimated to be over 40,000 harmful and/or lethal errors each and EVERY day.2
What's most shocking is that the harm often is preventable.
Shocking Medical Errors are All Too Common
Dr. Andrew Saul, co-author of Hospitals and Health: Your Orthomolecular Guide to a Shorter Hospital Stay (which is available on Amazon), recently explained that the lowest estimate makes hospitals one of the top 10 causes of deaths in the United States... and the highest estimate makes hospital and drugs the number one cause of death in the United States. Some of the top 10, and most lethal, medical mishaps are mistakes that should be extremely rare, but happen with shocking regularity:
1. Preventable Adverse Drug Reactions
An estimated 450,000 preventable medication-related adverse events of mostly correctly prescribed drugs occur in the U.S. every year. A large part of the problem is simply because so many drugs are used and prescribed – and many patients receive multiple prescriptions at varying strengths, some of which may counteract each other or cause more severe reactions when combined. Dosage errors, medication mix-ups and even giving the wrong medication to the wrong person are all too common.
2. Avoidable Infections
Hospital-acquired infections are alarmingly common, and sadly they're often deadly. In the United States, more than 2 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,3 analysis of approximately 40 million Medicare patients' records from 2007 through 2009 showed that 1 in 9 patients developed such hospital-acquired infections!
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.
3. Surgical Souvenirs
Surgical tools or other objects are left inside people after surgery far more often than you'd like to think. This is often the result of surgical staff failing to count, or miscounting, equipment during the procedure. Unexpected pain, fever and swelling after surgery are all indications that you could have a surgical tool or piece of a tool still inside you.
Just how often does this occur? One study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that about 1,500 Americans have objects left inside of them following surgery every year.4
Overtreatment is Taking its Toll
Too many medications, unnecessary surgeries, inappropriate medical screening... there is perhaps no other society that is subjected to as much excessive medical care, and often the "treatment" ends up being worse than the disease.
It's estimated that up to 30 percent of all medical procedures, tests and medications may be unnecessary5 – at a cost of at least $210 billion a year6 (plus the cost of emotional suffering and related complications and even death – which are impossible to put numbers on). The New York Times recently highlighted several examples of this epidemic of overtreatment, including:7
- A woman who received a CT scan and an MRI for a black eye (and was told she might have a brain tumor as a result, which resulted in an agonizing two-week wait for the results... she was fine and had no tumor)
- An elderly man who was put on two antidepressants after having a stroke, and subsequently began suffering from dementia and hallucinations (the drugs are associated with cognitive problems); after his son persuaded doctors to change the medications, the man's mental health quickly improved
- A new mom who said she felt "bullied" by doctors to perform a battery of tests on her 3-month-old daughter, who was born premature – even though her prior doctor had ruled her symptoms as normal
In her book, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, Shannon Brownlee also explained that as much as a third of the medical care received in hospitals does nothing to improve your health! What happens is that you often get certain medical tests because of what your physician's specialty is, not because that's necessarily the test you need. For example if you have low back pain and see different specialists you will get different tests: rheumatologists will order blood tests, neurologists will order nerve impulse tests, and surgeons will order MRIs and CT scans.
But no matter what tests you get, you'll probably end up with a spinal fusion because it's one of the "more lucrative procedures in medicine," Brownlee says – even though the best success rate for spinal fusions is only 25 percent!
Angioplasties and certain types of chemotherapy with similar low success rates are just as prone to be ordered, Brownlee says, because that's where hospitals' investments lie. You see, they have all this equipment and they need to use it to get a return on it – but they also need to get you out of there as quickly as possible, so they can get the next patient in. What ensues is a type of aggressive patient therapy where an unacceptable number of people will be harmed every year as a result of the medical treatments they received in the hospital.
5 Ways to Stop the Madness...
In the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Makary went on to explain five simple reforms that could make health care much safer:
- Online "Informational" Dashboards: This would include easily accessible hospital ratings for people to check out prior to choosing where to receive care. Information on rates of infection, readmission, surgical complications and "never events" (mistakes that should "never" happen, such as operating on the wrong body part), as well as annual volume for each type of surgery it performs, and patient satisfaction scores, would be available.
By being held publically accountable, it would prompt hospitals with low scores to make changes – or business would suffer.
- Safety Culture Scores: Anonymous surveys of hospital employees (including doctors, nurses, technicians, etc.) can reveal valuable information that correlates with better patient care, such as whether teamwork is good or bad, or whether employees feel they can speak up if they see a medical error in progress. These scores should be readily available to the public.
- Cameras: If health care workers know they're being filmed, it greatly improves compliance with established safety practices, such as hand washing, and even has been found to improve the quality of medical procedures. It also provides a way for doctors to review, critique and improve their surgical skills.
- Open Notes: Certain hospitals have begun using "open notes," which gives patients online access to their doctors' notes. Not only does this allow patients to correct any inaccurate information, it also sometimes prompts people to remember a crucial piece of their health care history that they left out during the appointment.
- No More Gagging: If you're a victim of a medical mistake, you will likely be ordered to not speak about it publicly as part of any settlement you receive. Some doctors are even asking patients to sign forms promising not to post anything negative online regarding their care before their first appointment. In hospitals, many health care workers feel they cannot speak up about medical errors, for fear of putting their jobs in jeopardy or suffering retaliations from co-workers.
But as Dr. Makary said, "We need more open dialogue about medical mistakes, not less."
You're Being Admitted to the Hospital: Tips for Staying Safe
In my recent interview (above) with Dr. Saul, he shared potentially life-saving tips in the event you find yourself in a hospital. Knowing how to prevent disease so you can avoid hospitals in the first place is clearly your best bet. But knowing what to do to make your hospital stay as safe as possible is equally important. Understand that you, the patient, are the most powerful entity within the entire hospital system. However, the system works on the assumption that the patient will not claim that power. Knowing your rights and responsibilities can help ensure your hospital stay is a safe and healing one.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about sharing the information on this site about healthy eating, exercise, and stress management with you is because it can help keep you OUT of the hospital. But if you do have to go there, you need to know how to play the game.
Many believe training hospitals will provide them with the latest and greatest care, but they can actually be far more dangerous.
As a general rule, avoid elective surgeries and procedures during the month of July because this is when brand new residents begin their training. According to a 2010 report in the Journal of General Internal Medicine,8 lethal medication errors consistently spike by about 10 percent each July, particularly in teaching hospitals, due to the inexperience of new residents. Also be cautious of weekends.
My primary suggestion is to avoid hospitals unless it's an absolute emergency and you need life-saving medical attention. In such cases, it's worth taking one of Dr. Saul's recommendations, which is to bring a personal advocate – a relative or friend who can speak up for you and ensure you're given proper care if you can't do so yourself. If you're having an elective medical procedure done, remember that this gives you greater leeway and personal choice – use it!
The other KEY is to be proactive and start pursuing a healthy lifestyle today so you don't become a victim. I have compiled my best tips in a customized 100-page report on how you can Take Control of Your Health. It is customized to three different levels and you can start at any level, but be sure and read from the beginning, as reviewing the basics is the best way to reinforce healthy patterns.