Hospitals: A Very Real Threat

In today’s upside-down world of hyperbolized “threats,” the relative magnitude of fear is almost inversely proportional to any actual risk involved.  If we truly want to know something about the real threats we face in everyday life, we can consult crime statistics, mortality figures and the like.  For example, let us consider whether, in the United States in the 21st century, you are in greater danger of being killed by a “terrorist” — or by an “in-hospital medical error.”

Last I checked, the Medical-Pharmaceutical Complex currently offers a bill-of-goods which includes 13,000 possible diagnoses, 6000 drugs, and 4000 surgical procedures.  Given the successful marketing of Worry, almost anything we might feel or notice could be a “condition” requiring treatment.  Thus, caveat emptor: such a pervasive “medicalization” of human experience — as the late Ivan Illich so brilliantly argued in Medical Nemesis (1976) — inevitably means over-treatment, over-medication, and an epidemic of “iatrogenesis” (treatment-induced illness).

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement recently estimated that 40,000 incidents of medical harm to patients are occurring daily.  Last year the New York Times, with its usual unintended irony, noted the hospital industry’s total failure, over the past decade, “to reduce errors and make hospital stays less hazardous to patients’ health.”  A recent study of hospitals in North Carolina even reported the astounding incidence of “25.1 injuries per 100 admissions.”  1

Health Grades, Inc., a leading health care quality company which rates hospitals on safety and other measures, completed a Patient Safety Study for the years 2000 to 2002, and concluded that “an average of 195,000 people in the USA died [each year] due to potentially preventable, in-hospital medical errors.”  After the study’s release in 2004, Health Grades vice-president Dr. Samantha Collier frankly characterized such “preventable, in-hospital medical errors” as “one of the leading killers in the U.S.”  Her startling analogy: “the equivalent of 390 jumbo jets full of people are dying each year.”  2 Such figures do not, of course, even include deaths at home due to medication side-effects or interactions, which have been estimated as possibly 100,000 or more per year.

If such figures are even close to the reality, we are talking about up to two million people killed in U.S. hospitals, due to PREVENTABLE medical errors, since “9/11.”  With their unswerving mission to “fill beds,” trim costs and continually increase revenues, hospital corporations are solemnly dedicated to the Hypocritical Oath: “First, raise profits — even if you (‘accidentally’) do harm.”

  1. Denise Grady, “Study Finds No Progress in Safety at Hospitals,” New York Times, November 25, 2010; p. 1. []
  2. Medical News Today, August 9, 2004 []

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.