According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the three leading causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. However, a recent study by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine suggests that there is another culprit, not tracked by the CDC, which surpasses respiratory disease and ranks as the third-leading cause of death in this country. Not only does it account for more than 250,000 American deaths annually – roughly the equivalent of two Boeing 747 airplanes crashing each day and killing every passenger onboard – but it is also almost entirely preventable.
Medical mistakes are now recognized as the third leading cause of death in this country. They come in many forms and in all fields of medicine. The one common factor is that they are avoidable. They occur because of human or institutional error.
Each year, more than 4,000 preventable mistakes occur in surgery. Researchers often refer to these errors as “never events” because they are the kinds of mistakes that should never occur. They include such careless blunders as leaving a medical tool (such as a sponge) inside a patient’s body, performing the wrong procedure, and performing a surgery on the wrong body part or the wrong person. It is horrifying to consider that surgeons make these kinds of mistakes at all, but the numbers are even more appalling.
The most recent Johns Hopkins study estimates that each week surgeons will leave a foreign object inside a patient’s body 39 times, perform the incorrect procedure 20 times, and operate on the wrong body part 20 times. Other studies have placed the number of American deaths even higher at 440,000 annually. (Journal of Patient Safety, 2013).
Some of these are simply careless mistakes, and some are the result of a deeper, institutional problem. Thousands of doctors are on medical probation, some of whom practice under the influence of drugs or alcohol. USA Today found that more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, technicians, and other health professionals struggle with drug abuse or addiction.
These preventable mistakes are happening with astounding frequency and these numbers do not even reflect the millions of injuries, only American deaths. If this was a war and the body count was anywhere close to this, would we stand by quietly?
As patients we can be a catalyst for change. Simply knowing what to look for can help reduce these numbers. We’ve compiled a list of the five most common medical errors, and give tips on how to best avoid them. After all, a patient should never leave the hospital feeling worse than when they arrived.
1. Medication Mistakes: Don’t assume the hospital has it right.
The Johns Hopkins study revealed deeper, systemic issues within hospitals that can often lead to medication mistakes. A lack of communication among departments, or doctors and nurses changing shifts, can result in missed medication or improper administration. In some situations, patients received drugs known to cause dangerous reactions.
Instead of blindly following doctors’ orders, review your records to be sure that the hospital has your correct and most recent medical history. Bring your prescription bottles to the hospital with you (or take photos of the labels) to eliminate questions about what you are taking. Ask the doctor or nurse about interactions with other drugs you are taking. Even check online yourself to see if there is a known interaction (See: www.drugs.com/drug_interactions.html).
2. Infections: Hand sanitizer is your friend.
Each year 1.7 million people acquire infections from the hospital that are unrelated to the reason for their original visit. These range from pneumonia, to urinary infections from catheters, to bloodstream infections from IVs.
Fortunately, this problem has a straightforward solution. Wash your hands often, and ask your doctors and nurses to do the same. If you’re staying in the same room for a few days, ask that frequently touched areas be disinfected. (While a room is routinely washed between patients, this task may be haphazardly overlooked if you’re there for more than a day or two).
3. Never Events: Ask questions and be the “difficult patient.”
Between 1990 and 2010 an estimated 80,000 “never events” occurred in surgeries in hospitals across the United States. This number likely underestimates the problem, as the study did not account for surgeries at ambulatory surgical centers or physicians’ offices. So how do we, as patients, take every step necessary to prevent errors that should never even be a concern to us?
Before being administered anesthesia, take time to meet with the entire team that will be operating. Point out (don’t just say aloud) which part of your body should receive treatment, and have your surgeon initial that spot. Remind your doctor to use a checklist to count equipment before and after the operation. Ask them exactly what they will be doing and who will be doing it (it is not unusual for the doctor you meet with to be different than the one who treats you while in surgery, sometimes known as “ghost surgery”).
4. Misdiagnosis: Two heads are better than one.
Mistakes in diagnoses are the most common type of medical error. Since the wrong diagnosis can delay treatment you may need, or even introduce medication that exacerbates your problem, determining your true condition is key.
Sometimes, a second set of eyes and ears is all that is needed. Before moving forward with treatment, visit a different doctor to get another opinion. If they agree, you can move forward with more confidence. If not, go back and get additional opinions.
5. Unnecessary tests or treatment: Find out the purpose.
Each year $700 billion is spent on tests and treatments that are unnecessary. But your wallet isn’t the only thing at risk; CT scans and MRIs can cause kidney failures, x-rays expose you to radiation, and even simply drawing blood can increase your risk of an infection. In order to protect yourself, ask your doctor why a procedure is necessary and if there are any other options.
Unfortunately, there are many ways to be injured or killed through medical treatment. Most health care providers are competent and skilled. In fact, since 1990, only 2% of doctors nationwide have been responsible for 50% of total malpractice payouts. For those who err, the results of their mistakes can be catastrophic.
Ironically, while medical mistakes have grown to the third leading cause of death in America, medical malpractice cases are at historic lows because of legislatively created statutes inhibiting victims’ rights as well as an astoundingly low rate of physicians maintaining liability insurance. So while the medical carnage continues, those wreaking havoc fail to provide the financial responsibility necessary to help compensate their victims. Which makes it all the more essential to take control over your medical care and prevent errors from happening in the first place.
John Elliot Leighton is a board certified trial lawyer and managing partner of Leighton Law, P.A., a trial law firm with offices in Miami and Orlando. He is listed in “The Best Lawyers in America” for medical malpractice, personal injury and product liability litigation for plaintiffs. www.LeightonLaw.com