by Jean Henry Mead
Unnecessary hospital deaths equal that of auto accidents, breast cancer and perhaps even strokes. A recent report from Forbes lists the hazards we face while confined to a hospital bed. Between 40,000 and 100,000 patients die every year due to surgical mistakes and drug mix-ups, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Mistakes during surgical procedures include scalpels left in the patient, wrong limbs amputated, excessive bleeding and heart failure. Infected incisions are likely and can be serious because hospital germs are resistant to physician-used antibiotics. Bacteria that thrives in ventilator machines, which help patients breath, frequently cause pneumonia. If water pools in the ventilator’s hoses, bacteria can move from the stomach into the lungs.
Infections are one of the leading causes of patient deaths. One study reported that doctors only wash their hands 44% of the time. If they know they’re being watched, they wash them 61%, a good reason to present your doctor with a bottle of hand sanitizer that you can watch him use.
Dr. Brent James, executive director of Salt Lake City’s Intermountain Institute, said, “The notion that you can train doctors to completely avoid mistakes is just false.” And no one’s immune to those mistakes. In California, Dennis Quaid’s newborn twins were given blood thinners a thousand times the recommended dosage, and comedian Dana Carvey was the victim of botched bypass surgery. Fortunately, all three victims survived.
Evan Falchuk, president of Boston-based Best Doctors, said, “Doctors and nurses spend insufficient time with each patient. Many doctors are seeing between 30 and 40 patients a day.” And because patients outnumber the resources to treat them, hospitals often place people in the wrong wards with nurses and aids untrained to treat their illnesses. Placing patients in the wrong hospital wings invites the spread of airborne infections.
A study by Auburn University concluded that hospitalized patients may get the wrong drug three times out of five, and advised doing away with prescription pads and scribbled doctors' handwriting. Systems that rely on bedside computers are gradually being replaced by wireless tablets or handheld computers. Some hospitals are now using bar codes on patient’s wristbands as well as drug vials to cut down on possible mistakes, which still happen much too often.
Hospital tests can also be dangerous. The problem is that most screenings don't work that well. Many yield false-positive results, which lead to unnecessary, risky treatments. Other tests work, although the results are usually not known in time for patients to take preventative measures.
The National Cancer Institute has been conducting trials to determine whether computerized chest X-rays can reduce deaths caused from smoking by detecting early lung cancers, which are usually found too late. There is also evidence that X-rays and cat scans can cause cancers, themselves.
Evan Falchuck of Best Doctors said that although patients don’t have control of scheduled surgeries, it’s best to be your own advocate. “People want someone to wave a wand and fix the problem,” he said, but “if you’re sick, the best way to avoid getting sicker is take charge of your care.”
And I might add, several ounces of prevention are worth a pound of hospital cure. Most illnesses can be prevented by avoiding stimulants, getting 15 minutes of early or late sun daily, exercising, eating right and getting 7-9 hours of sleep. (Growing your own food would help, if you buy the right organic seeds.)