Last week, CNN reported that medical errors may be the third leading cause of death in the U.S.. The current tally is around 400,000 preventable deaths per year.
Wow, folks. Just wow. That’s like accidentally killing the entire population of Miami every year.
When I first glanced at the article, I took comfort from the words ‘”may be” the third …’ It was probably just our media trying to manufacture news, again, rather than reporting it. But on closer inspection, it appears that the actual numbers may be even higher. Apparently, accurate stats are hard to gather because death certificates can’t list “medical error” as a cause of death. (To which I say: WTF?!) Also, a huge number of errors go unnoticed – 80% of them, according to the Dept. of Health and Human Services – so subsequent deaths are attributed to erroneous causes.
Even presuming today’s lowball stats are correct, this places death by medical error right behind heart disease and cancer, but way ahead of deaths by motor vehicle accident.
I was surprised by CNN’s headlines, but I’ve been a nurse for 28 years and the situation is all too familiar. In my recent novel, Sweet Dreams, the easiest scenes to write involved a young woman who died as a result of a crappy medical system. Sadly (Okay, fortunately for my sideline-author gig), I’ve seen enough dysfunction in my career to arm me with many sequels.
Here’s seven thoughts and questions that I have regarding our current situation:
- The government pours around $5 billion into cancer research every year. How much is going into the prevention of medical errors?
- Are nurses on the front lines being asked for their input? (My personal definition of a nurse on the front line is one who talks to, treats, and most importantly, TOUCHES patients more than 100 shifts/year.)
- We know that mistakes in operating rooms are almost always preceded by disruptive behavior. What is being done to field bully surgeons?
- Hospital-acquired infections represent a huge chunk of our preventable medical errors. The risk of an infection increases 45% if a patient stays overnight at a hospital. When searching for solutions, has anybody asked housekeeping personnel for their input?
- In 2004, California became the first state to implement minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, designed to improve patient care and nurse retention. Subsequent studies show that California’s program worked remarkably well. Why the heck haven’t other states copied California’s lead? Isn’t their system cost effective?
- How many of California’s successes are attributable to nurses’ unions?
- What part does patient responsibility play in all this? If a patient’s immune system is compromised because he is a morbidly obese, alcoholic, asthmatic smoker who is non-compliant with his diabetes treatment, is death from a hospital-acquired infection really a surprise? Is it preventable?
I feel that our efforts should focus less on blame and more on positive change. There is a tragically low quantity and quality of studies examining successful medical-error-prevention measures. Insurance companies providing malpractice insurance for hospitals should have a vested interest in funding studies – and demanding change. So should our government. What do you think?