A few weeks ago, a very unfortunate thing happened to one of my dearest friends.
He was in the hospital for a heart-related concern. A procedure was performed to correct the problem and he was fine. Or so we all thought. But soon after, things took a sharp turn.
This isn’t common knowledge, but, generally speaking, cardiologists want just about everyone on anticoagulants. These are drugs (like aspirin, Coumadin, Plavix, or Eliquis) designed to keep your blood thin and prevent dangerous clots and subsequent stroke.
Personally, I hardly ever keep my patients on blood thinners, because I’m well aware of the risks. One of which is a dramatic spike in stroke risk in some patients during the early days of treatment.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what happened to my friend. He received too much anticoagulant medication in the hospital. And he had a stroke.
He should recover — but it is unlikely that he will ever be the same again. And now, my friend — who is also a medical school professor, I should add — cannot even speak.
I bring this up because it’s one personal example of medical error resulting in tragedy. But it’s hardly the only example.
In fact, a new report shows medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Just behind heart disease and cancer.
And needless to say, it’s just as preventable as these two big killers. But you’re not likely to see it making headlines anytime soon. Because most of the time, the public never even finds out about these tragedies.
You see, we use an archaic system for death certificates, which only asks to list causes that have a diagnosis code. And conveniently, “medical error” has no such code.
As a result, you have heart disease and cancer stealing the spotlight — and the research funding — when it comes to public health initiatives. While lethal medical error continues to sail under the radar, largely unacknowledged.
And the problem is even bigger than you might think. As part of a recent analysis, researchers looked at medical death rate data from four different studies spanning between 2000 and 2008. Applying the trends they uncovered to hospital admissions in 2013, they projected roughly a quarter million deaths likely traced back to medical error.
That’s significantly more deaths than COPD and other respiratory diseases, which were considered the No. 3 cause of death up until now.
It’s also worth noting that this new analysis only covers projected hospital deaths. So the actual number of fatalities attributable to medical error is likely much higher.
But we’re not likely to learn those numbers anytime soon. Because the fact is, there’s absolutely zero incentive for hospitals or other providers to report them.
Which isn’t to suggest that we’re all victims of some huge conspiracy. Don’t get me wrong — you can’t avoid human error completely. And at the end of the day, these tragedies aren’t so much the result incompetent doctors as they are the symptom of some very serious flaws in our medical system.
Your care at a hospital is only going to be as safe as its standard practices. So while accountability is essential, you can probably see why suing more doctors isn’t a particularly fair or effective way to prevent future tragedies.
We really have to think bigger than that. Because the truth is, our country’s whole approach to medical treatment could use an overhaul.
Case in point: Prescription medications are a large source of these fatalities. Patients take so many drugs these days. And the interactions can indeed be serious, even life-threatening. But potentially dangerous interactions aside, the drugs themselves can often pose a potentially lethal threat (as in the case of my friend).
There’s a whole lot of room for error in the pharmaceutical department alone. So maybe that’s where we should begin our crusade against preventable hospital deaths.
Clearly, we have to start somewhere. Because what you don’t know certainly can kill you… and this problem isn’t going away on its own.