Even the best hospitals can be dangerous

Mar 29, 2010 at 3:01 p.m. ET

Imagine that close to 200,000 patients are needlessly killed, every year, in US hospitals. The cause: medical malpractice. These epidemic proportion numbers have elevated the status of medical malpractice, so that it has become the third leading cause of death in our country. Here is how the medical system, even the best of the best medical facilities and doctors, can be dangerous to your health.

Woman having discussion with doctor

Hundreds of thousands of patients die in hospitals

These statistics were derived from studies done by the Institute of Medicine (a section of the National Academy of Sciences, in the late 1990's) and, more recently, by Health Grades. These figures do not reflect those patients that are just hurt or maimed, which are estimated to be four times as many as those killed.

Hospital deaths rival deaths by airline travel

Some argue that 200,000 patients lost are small in comparison to the 35 million patients that are admitted every year into American hospitals. However, if one compares these statistics to airline travel, where there are 850 million passengers who fly annually in the United States, only two hundred to four hundred are killed in commercial airline accidents. I am sure that if two jumbo jets fell out of the sky, every day, all year long, with 300 "souls" on board, one would be very weary to get on an aircraft.

Medical malpractice kills

The causes of medical malpractice deaths are many. Probably the most common cause is that of a physician making a diagnosis and sticking to it, besides all new evidence to the contrary. This can and does happen to any doctor. Doctors are human. Doctors are busy and become inattentive. As humans we all make mistakes. Unfortunately, sometimes, these mistakes can be fatal.

Even the best doctors make mistakes


It is true that five percent of physicians are responsible for fifty percent of doctor related medical malpractice deaths. But, the other fifty percent comes from your average (or above average) physician.

Just recently, I diagnosed a patient with kidney cancer and he opted to have his surgery at one of the top cancer hospitals in the country; the surgeon was renowned. Two weeks after surgery, my patient returned to me complaining of fevers and not feeling well at all. I told him that these symptoms must be related to his surgery. "Oh no, the surgeon said that I was fine," responded my patient. I ordered a CT scan and sure enough, there was a large collection of pus in his abdomen.

Four weeks later and after the surgeon treated my patient he returned to my office with similar symptoms of fever. Again, his condition was cleared by the surgeon and again I ordered a CT scan; the collection had recurred. This time I called this famous surgeon to complain about he and his staffs' missing of such important findings. Well, he yelled and screamed over the phone and blurted out "whose side are you on, the doctors or the lawyers?" That ego is surely going to kill a lot of patients.

Hospitals with the highest ratings

Surviving Your Doctors

There are 5,500 hospitals in the United States (excluding VA and government hospitals). Health Grades has rated them all, from "one star" to "five star" (five star being the highest and best rating). Believe it or not, there are only 250 hospitals in America that are rated five stars. That is less than five percent of our hospitals. Don't even think that your local community hospital is on that list. There is only one five star designated hospital (according to Health Grades) in New York City.

Their study shows that being a patient in a five star hospital will assure you that you will have 70 percent lesser occurrences of medical malpractice and a 50 percent chance that you will not die from medical malpractice. But staggeringly, medical malpractice still exists there and is thriving. Patients still die from its complications; even in these five star institutions.

For example, my friend and patient, John, had surgery in our nearest five star hospital. While in the surgical intensive care unit, his surgeon ordered IV potassium (John heard him tell that to the nurse; the last thing John heard for a long time). Well, the nurse injected the potassium directly into John's IV (and not diluting it into his IV solution, as she should have). At first John felt this severe burning in his arm, he screamed, and then he went into shock.

Question your medical providers

The concept of my book Surviving Your Doctors is to make you become aware and weary of everything and anything that your doctor says and does. You must question everything before you become a statistic.

If a doctor or nurse comes to give you an injection or a pill, question them: "Is this medication really for me?" and "What is the medication and what will it do?" Remember that every day in every hospital in America, a patient will be given the wrong medicine and will have a horrible reaction. Seven thousand of these patients will die.

So question everyone and everything, Google, and then question again. This will help keep you from becoming one of the above statistics. It is 2010: you are empowered to be part of the treating team.

More ways to manage your health