A new research study recently published in the BMJ claims that medical error is the third leading cause of death in America. It is third only to heart disease and cancer. Most of the major news outlets are sensationalizing this report.
A few headlines are even slowly starting to replace the phrase “medical error” with “doctor error.” Some comments I noted on social media include, “Medical errors kill eight times as many people as car accidents and five times as many people as suicide,” and “This makes a trip to the hospital even scarier.” Another stated, “Go to the doctor when you’re sick in the hopes of getting better, and you might end up dead, instead.”
Doctors are now deemed responsible for nearly 2.6 million American deaths every year.
And I object!
In my opinion, the study is flawed. There are two major problems with the research. Firstly, the data used is not new. It uses the same numbers from the original study, which was published in 2013 highlighting patient safety. Furthermore, it states that the deaths that are due to medical error are “preventable” but the definition of a preventable death is extremely broad.
The study mentions a case report of a young transplant patient who dies of internal bleeding, which was caused by a procedure known as pericardiocentesis. The bleeding is an unfortunate yet known complication of this procedure. Every treatment modality in medicine has risks and benefits, and physicians are trained to weigh both sides. In my opinion, the case mentioned above does not fit the definition of a “preventable death” and thus does not support the researchers’ claims.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not undermining the importance of patient safety, and I think it is crucial to improve documentation of medical error on death certificates. However, we need to employ a better approach towards this issue. A multidisciplinary approach that involves all parties rather than a bureaucratic one. We also need to be fair to physicians.
Physicians who work in a hospital have tough jobs. I witness unhappy and jaded colleagues every day. Most are overworked and short-staffed. According to a recent survey, only 6 percent of doctors are happy with their jobs. They commit suicide at twice the rate of the general population. Over half are unsure they would recommend the practice of medicine to young people.
We also have to live in fear of lawsuits. I recently started volunteering at a free clinic, which has been a very positive experience for me. I told one of my colleagues about this rewarding opportunity, and one of the first things she asked about was malpractice insurance coverage. Her concern is legitimate and extremely sad. It’s disappointing that doctors are forced to practice defensive medicine at all times.
Personally speaking, every day at the hospital is challenging. I have to see a lot of patients, and most are extremely sick. I am usually pressed on time, but I try to do my best. Patient care remains a priority, but I also have to abide by hospital rules in terms of timely admissions and discharge in an attempt to appease the hospital administrators. I try my best to balance patient care with the bureaucratic side of hospital medicine.
We all took the oath to “do no harm” and serve as patient advocates. Ultimately, we are doing the best we can for our patients despite the overwhelming hospital expectations and demands. I hope there is a positive change soon when it comes to improving patient safety measures, but I also hope that the people involved in making that change understand the physician’s challenges.
Neha Sharma is a hospitalist. This article originally appeared in the El Paso Times.
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