Hidden hazards of healthcare
Imagine the uproar that would occur if a new disease were discovered that killed half a million people a year. That would rival the death rate from heart attacks and cancer.
No doubt alarms would be raised and the deadly new condition would be featured on the nightly news and in headlines. People would be frightened and they would demand that something be done to save lives. Billions would be spent trying to understand the nature of the ailment and how to prevent or cure it.
This scenario is imaginary, but unfortunately the deaths are not. Healthcare harm kills more than half a million Americans every year, but there are no headlines or alarms.
Doctors refer to these deaths as "iatrogenic" mortality, using a word that means it was caused inadvertently by medical treatment. These deaths can be difficult to count, so the figures we have gathered are estimates.
Between 76,000 and 137,000 people die annually from fatal drug reactions in the hospital (Journal of the American Medical Association, Apr. 15, 1998). Fatal drug reactions also kill more than 100,000 people outside the hospital setting each year.
Misdiagnosis accounts for approximately 100,000 additional deaths. Lethal blood clots kill between 100,000 and 200,000 people every year and many could be prevented (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, April, 2010, Suppl. 4).
Over 100,000 people die annually from infections they catch in healthcare facilities (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Many providers take this death toll for granted, assuming that nothing can be done to change it.
This is reminiscent of the attitude that prevailed in the middle of the 19th century when a physician named Ignaz Semmelweis tried to convince his colleagues to wash their hands before delivering babies. Although his experiments demonstrated that this practice could save women's lives, doctors were dubious. Semmelweis was ridiculed and his ideas were ignored for decades.
Why isn't there more outrage today about the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by medical mistakes and healthcare harm? Perhaps it's because there is no organized system for collecting data when people die. Individual families mourn the loss of a loved one and wonder whether the death could have been prevented.
Healthcare organizations don't always reveal when a mistake occurs. Doctors and nurses may sometimes admit an error, but a study revealed that such voluntary reports only cover a tiny fraction of the complications that occur (Health Affairs, April 2011).
Doctors frequently complain that patients are not always compliant with medical advice and don't exercise personal responsibility for their health. But healthcare providers rarely hold themselves accountable for the silent epidemic of healthcare harm.
If you would like to learn more about the hidden hazards of healthcare and how to keep your loved ones safe, you may wish to read our new book, “Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them” (Crown Archetype). It is available in bookstores, libraries and online. Should you wish a free copy of our 220-page book, Favorite Foods From The People's Pharmacy: Mother Nature's Medicine with your copy of “Top Screwups,” go to peoplespharmacy.com.
Until the health care system acknowledges the iatrogenic death toll, patients and their families will have to be vigilant to protect themselves from harm when receiving treatment.