The Hidden Epidemic
Health care expert William Charney says medical errors are the leading cause of death in the U.S. - but hospitals don't want you to know
I’ve got a friend, I’ll call him George, who, for several months, experienced an intense pain on his side. Turned out to be a kidney stone. George had dealt with them before and passed each one, with varying degrees of discomfort. But this time, no such luck.
Doctors determined that due to the kidney stone’s size—9 millimeters by 7 millimeters, roughly the size of a raisin—it was too large to pass through his ureter, into his bladder and out his urethra. So they scheduled George for a lithotripsy, a procedure that would use acoustic shock waves to “blast” the stone to bits, the easier for it to pass. It was supposed to be an easy procedure.
Somehow, during the process, a tear developed in George’s kidney. Could it have been the result of stone fragmentation during the procedure? No one knows. But as a result, George lost two quarts of blood. Doctors worried about complications. George had to wear special “socks” to massage his calves, to prevent blood clots. He wondered if something else would go wrong. Luckily, it didn’t. And after spending several days in the hospital, he went home, where, for a couple weeks, he battled through waves of pain. A follow-up visit with a new doctor revealed that his urologist had prescribed an improper dosage of pain medication. His new doc tweaked his medication. Finally, after a month, George seems to be on the mend.
Did my friend George experience a medical error? Maybe. It’s impossible to know. But the whole time I spoke with William Charney, I couldn’t stop thinking about George.
With 30 years experience as a health and safety officer in the health care industry, including five years as the safety coordinator for the Washington Hospital Association, Charney has become a vocal activist for health care reform. Recently, his attention has been drawn to medical errors, those events that occur in health care settings that impact patients’ health. By Charney’s reckoning, some of those impacts have deadly consequences. Through research he’s gathered, he believes that medical errors lead to more than 788,000 deaths a year, making them the leading cause of death in the United States.
For proof, he points to a new book he edited, “Epidemic of Medical Errors and Hospital-Acquired Infections: Systemic and Social Causes” (CRC Press, $99.95). A collection of 19 essays written by Charney and a group of doctors, nurses and health care professionals, the book relates sobering stories from a nurse on the frontlines, how medical errors affect marginalized populations and how hospitals can be breeding grounds for infections. It’s enough to make you feel ill.
But if he and his colleagues are right that medical errors kill more people than anything else, then why don’t we know about it? Charney has a few ideas. And, while sitting over a lunch at the Salmon Bay Caf
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