Where's the outrage for deaths caused by health care?


Consider what happens when deaths or injuries result from a problem with a mine, a ferry, a train, an airplane, a cruise ship, an oilrig or an automobile. For example, a Malaysian airliner disappearance in March 2014, with 239 presumed dead, got so much attention that a Google search on this topic yielded 143 million hits. A Metro-North train crash in December 2013 that left four dead resulted in an immediate investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Mine incidents leading to a handful of deaths are investigated by both state and federal mine safety organizations.

When a Staten Island ferry crashed in 2010, leading to 40 injuries, the New York Times reported, "Officials said that the cause appeared to be a mechanical failure but that a more definitive answer awaited a full inquiry by city and state officials." An accident involving the same ferry seven years earlier, leaving 11 dead and 70 injured, led to a guilty plea by the pilot for manslaughter, "but investigators also faulted training and enforcement of safety rules."

When a cruise ship experienced an engine fire that left it stranded for four days, the company committed to giving all passengers full refunds. News reports said that the company was committing $300 million to a fleet-wide safety upgrade. And three agencies investigated, including the Bahamas Maritime Authority, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico led to 11 deaths and extensive damage; a news report noted that the U.S. Justice Department "had begun an investigation into possible criminal acts" within three weeks, and the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder officially opened a criminal and civil investigation within six weeks. At least two states were cleared to sue the company for negligence and punitive damages.

Googling [General Motors 13 deaths] yields over 54 million hits, for a problem with a car part that the company allegedly knew about but did not address in a timely fashion, leading to 13 deaths over a decade. This situation led to a congressional inquiry, and the federal government opened a criminal investigation.

Federal investigations. State investigations. Criminal charges. Congressional hearings. $300 million committed to safety upgrades. Full refunds to consumers. Manslaughter plea. These are some of the consequences from problems resulting in deaths ranging from zero up to about 300.

Now consider injuries and deaths caused by healthcare. A recent study by respected researchers concluded that non-hospitalized patients are misdiagnosed about 5 percent of the time, meaning that 12 million people a year in the U.S. are misdiagnosed. The study further concluded that the information to make a correct diagnosis was available at the time of the initial visit, and that in about half the cases; patients could be harmed by the error.

Another study involving almost all patients during a six month period at two typical hospitals concluded that 6.5 percent of the time, the primary reason that people are admitted is an "adverse drug event," which means a problem resulting from medicines they were taking. The study excluded intentional overdoses, etc. Since 37 million people are admitted to the hospital each year in the U.S., roughly, 2.4 million people are affected - and the study concluded that 72 percent of the time, the problems were avoidable.

Separately, the U.S. government reports that 770,000 hospitalized patients are injured or die each year due to adverse drug events, generally because a doctor makes a mistake in ordering the drug, a nurse makes a mistake in administering it or the hospital pharmacy makes a mistake dispensing it. Common errors include ordering the wrong dose, giving patients drugs to which they have known allergies, giving a drug to the wrong patient and giving the drug too often.

Most of these errors are preventable, and in 9.7 percent of the cases -or nearly 75,000 a year, - the patient is left with a permanent disability.

Statistics for preventable infections, blood clots and other complications of hospital treatment are equally disturbing.

Where are the national safety investigations? Where are the congressional hearings? Where is the commitment to change? Where, even, is the idea of refunding charges to consumers for care that hurts them?

Where's the outrage?

To tell your story, propose a topic or ask a question, write to thegoodpatient@pariohealth.net. Bewley's latest book, a collection of 40 articles from this column, is available locally at Hastings and at Peregrine Books and online at Amazon. It is titled "Not Your Grandmother's Nursing Home: Demystifying Today's Retirement Living Options."

Elizabeth L. Bewley