How Doctors Responded to Being Named a Leading Killer

Sept 19 Doctors copy.jpeg

In my video Why Prevention Is Worth a Ton of Cure, I profiled a paper that added up all the deaths caused by medical care in this country, including the hundred thousand deaths from medication side effects, all the deaths caused by errors, and so on. The author of the paper concluded that the third leading cause of death in America is the American medical system.

What was the medical community's reaction to this revelation? After all, the paper was published in one of the most prestigious medical journals, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and was authored by one of our most prestigious physicians, Barbara Starfield, who literally wrote the book on primary care. When she was asked in an interview what the response was, Starfield replied that her primary care work had been widely embraced, but her findings on how harmful and ineffective healthcare could be received almost no attention.

This inspires the recollection of "the dark dystopia of George Orwell's 1984, where awkward facts are swallowed up by the 'memory hole' as if they had never existed at all." Report after report has come out, and the response has been a deafening silence both in deed and in word, failing to even openly discuss the problem, leading to thousands of additional deaths. We can't just keep putting out reports, we have to actually do something.

As I discuss in my video How Doctors Responded to Being Named a Leading Killer, the first report was published in 1978, suggesting about 120,000 preventable hospital deaths a year. The response? Silence for another 16 years until another scathing reminder was published. If we multiply 120,000 by those 16 years, we get 1.9 million preventable deaths, about which there was near total doctor silence. There was no substantial effort to reduce the number of those deaths. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) then released its landmark study in 1999, asserting that yet another 600,000 patients died during that time when providers could have acted.

Some things have finally changed. Work hour limits were instituted for medical trainees. Interns and residents could no longer be worked more than 80 hours a week, at least on paper, and the shifts couldn't be more than 30 hours long. That may not sound like a big step, but when I started out my internship, I worked 36 hour shifts every three days, 117-hour work weeks.

When interns and residents are forced to pull all-nighters, they make 36% more serious medical errors, five times more diagnostic errors, and have twice as many "attentional failures." That doesn't sound so bad, until you realize that means things like nodding off during surgery.

The patient is supposed to be asleep during surgery, not the surgeon.

Performance is impaired as much as a blood alcohol level that would make it illegal to drive a car--but these overworked interns and residents can still do surgery. No surprise there were 300% more patient deaths. Residents consider themselves lucky if they get through training without killing anyone. Not that the family would ever find out. With rare exceptions, doctors are unaccountable for their actions.

The IOM report did break the silence and prompted widespread promises of change, but what they did not do is act as if they really believed their own findings. If we truly believed that a minimum of 120 people every day were dying preventable deaths in hospitals, we would draw a line in the sand. If an airliner was crashing every day, we'd expect that the FAA would step in and do something. The Institute of Medicine could insistently demand that doctors and hospitals immediately adopt at least a minimum set of preventive practices--for example, bar-coding drugs so there aren't any mix-ups, like they do for even a pack of Tic Tacs at the grocery store. Rather than just going on to write yet another report, they could bluntly warn colleagues they would publicly censure those who resisted implementing these minimum practices, calling for some kind of stringent sanctions.

Instead, we get silence. But not for Barbara Starfield, who is unfortunately no longer with us. Ironically, she may have died from one of the adverse drug reactions she so vociferously warned us about. She was placed on aspirin and the blood-thinner Plavix to keep a stent she had to have placed in her coronary artery from clogging up. She told her cardiologist she was bruising more, bleeding longer, but those side effects are the risks you hope don't outweigh the benefits. Starfield apparently hit her head while swimming and bled into her brain.

The question for me is not whether she should have been on two blood-thinners for that long or even whether she should have had the stent inserted. Instead, I question whether or not she could have outright avoided the heart disease, which is 96% avoidable in women.

The number-one killer of women need almost never happen.


For those curious about my time in medical training, you can read my memoir of sorts, Heart Failure: Diary of a Third Year Medical Student.

It isn't just medical treatment that can be harmful. Even medical diagnosis can be dangerous, as I discuss in my video Cancer Risk From CT Scan Radiation.

And, just as we're (finally) seeing some changes in training protocols, the times, they are a-changin' with the emergence of the field of lifestyle medicine, as I present in several videos, including:

I recently made some videos to give people a closer look at why I believe it's so important for us to take responsibility for our own health. You can see all of them on our new Introductory Videos page.

I'm excited to be part of this revolution in medicine. Please consider joining me by supporting the 501c3 nonprofit organization that keeps NutritionFacts.org alive by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you so much for helping me help so many others.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Original Link

How Doctors Responded to Being Named a Leading Killer

Sept 19 Doctors copy.jpeg

In my video Why Prevention Is Worth a Ton of Cure, I profiled a paper that added up all the deaths caused by medical care in this country, including the hundred thousand deaths from medication side effects, all the deaths caused by errors, and so on. The author of the paper concluded that the third leading cause of death in America is the American medical system.

What was the medical community's reaction to this revelation? After all, the paper was published in one of the most prestigious medical journals, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and was authored by one of our most prestigious physicians, Barbara Starfield, who literally wrote the book on primary care. When she was asked in an interview what the response was, Starfield replied that her primary care work had been widely embraced, but her findings on how harmful and ineffective healthcare could be received almost no attention.

This inspires the recollection of "the dark dystopia of George Orwell's 1984, where awkward facts are swallowed up by the 'memory hole' as if they had never existed at all." Report after report has come out, and the response has been a deafening silence both in deed and in word, failing to even openly discuss the problem, leading to thousands of additional deaths. We can't just keep putting out reports, we have to actually do something.

As I discuss in my video How Doctors Responded to Being Named a Leading Killer, the first report was published in 1978, suggesting about 120,000 preventable hospital deaths a year. The response? Silence for another 16 years until another scathing reminder was published. If we multiply 120,000 by those 16 years, we get 1.9 million preventable deaths, about which there was near total doctor silence. There was no substantial effort to reduce the number of those deaths. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) then released its landmark study in 1999, asserting that yet another 600,000 patients died during that time when providers could have acted.

Some things have finally changed. Work hour limits were instituted for medical trainees. Interns and residents could no longer be worked more than 80 hours a week, at least on paper, and the shifts couldn't be more than 30 hours long. That may not sound like a big step, but when I started out my internship, I worked 36 hour shifts every three days, 117-hour work weeks.

When interns and residents are forced to pull all-nighters, they make 36% more serious medical errors, five times more diagnostic errors, and have twice as many "attentional failures." That doesn't sound so bad, until you realize that means things like nodding off during surgery.

The patient is supposed to be asleep during surgery, not the surgeon.

Performance is impaired as much as a blood alcohol level that would make it illegal to drive a car--but these overworked interns and residents can still do surgery. No surprise there were 300% more patient deaths. Residents consider themselves lucky if they get through training without killing anyone. Not that the family would ever find out. With rare exceptions, doctors are unaccountable for their actions.

The IOM report did break the silence and prompted widespread promises of change, but what they did not do is act as if they really believed their own findings. If we truly believed that a minimum of 120 people every day were dying preventable deaths in hospitals, we would draw a line in the sand. If an airliner was crashing every day, we'd expect that the FAA would step in and do something. The Institute of Medicine could insistently demand that doctors and hospitals immediately adopt at least a minimum set of preventive practices--for example, bar-coding drugs so there aren't any mix-ups, like they do for even a pack of Tic Tacs at the grocery store. Rather than just going on to write yet another report, they could bluntly warn colleagues they would publicly censure those who resisted implementing these minimum practices, calling for some kind of stringent sanctions.

Instead, we get silence. But not for Barbara Starfield, who is unfortunately no longer with us. Ironically, she may have died from one of the adverse drug reactions she so vociferously warned us about. She was placed on aspirin and the blood-thinner Plavix to keep a stent she had to have placed in her coronary artery from clogging up. She told her cardiologist she was bruising more, bleeding longer, but those side effects are the risks you hope don't outweigh the benefits. Starfield apparently hit her head while swimming and bled into her brain.

The question for me is not whether she should have been on two blood-thinners for that long or even whether she should have had the stent inserted. Instead, I question whether or not she could have outright avoided the heart disease, which is 96% avoidable in women.

The number-one killer of women need almost never happen.


For those curious about my time in medical training, you can read my memoir of sorts, Heart Failure: Diary of a Third Year Medical Student.

It isn't just medical treatment that can be harmful. Even medical diagnosis can be dangerous, as I discuss in my video Cancer Risk From CT Scan Radiation.

And, just as we're (finally) seeing some changes in training protocols, the times, they are a-changin' with the emergence of the field of lifestyle medicine, as I present in several videos, including:

I recently made some videos to give people a closer look at why I believe it's so important for us to take responsibility for our own health. You can see all of them on our new Introductory Videos page.

I'm excited to be part of this revolution in medicine. Please consider joining me by supporting the 501c3 nonprofit organization that keeps NutritionFacts.org alive by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you so much for helping me help so many others.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Original Link

Medical Care: The Third Leading Cause of Death

NF-Nov10 Why Prevention is Worth.jpg

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but a pound isn't that heavy. Why change our diet and lifestyle when we can just wait and let modern medicine fix us up? In my video The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs, I noted that patients tend to wildly overestimate the ability of cancer screening and cholesterol-lowering medications to prevent disease. Surveyed patients report they were told the truth about how little they'd benefit, 90% said they wouldn't even bother.

The reason we should eat healthier, rather than just counting on a medical technofix, is that we may hold this same overconfidence for treatment, too. In a massive study of more than 200,000 trials, researchers discovered that pills and procedures can certainly help, but genuine, very large effects with extensive support from substantial evidence appear to be rare in medicine. Further, large benefits for mortality--making people live significantly longer--are almost entirely nonexistent. Modern medicine is great for acute conditions--broken bones and curing infections--but for chronic disease, our leading causes of death and disability, we don't have much to offer. In fact, we sometimes do more harm than good.

In my Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death presentation, I noted that side-effects from prescription drugs kill an estimated 100,000 Americans every year, making medical care the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There are another 7,000 deaths from getting the wrong medicine by mistake and 20,000 deaths from other errors in hospitals. Hospitals are dangerous places. An additional 99,000 of us die from hospital-acquired infections. But can we really blame doctors for those deaths, though? We can when they don't wash their hands.

We've known since the 1840's that the best way to prevent hospital-acquired infections is through handwashing, yet compliance rates among healthcare workers rarely exceeds 50%, and doctors are the worst, as highlighted in my video Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure. Even in a medical intensive care unit with a "contact precautions" sign, signaling a particularly high risk patient, less than a quarter of doctors were found to wash their hands. Many physicians greeted the horrendous mortality data due to medical error with disbelief and concern that the information would undermine public trust. But if doctors still won't even wash their hands, how much trust do we deserve?

We could go in for a simple operation and come out with a life-threatening infection, or not come out at all. 12,000 more die from surgeries that were unnecessary in the first place. For those keeping score, that's 225,000 people dead from iatrogenic ("relating to medical care") causes. And that's mostly just for patients in a hospital. In an outpatient setting, side-effects from prescription drugs send millions to the hospital and result in perhaps 199,000 additional deaths. This is not including all those non-fatally injured (such as the case where doctors accidentally amputated the tip of a man's penis. Oops).

These estimates are on the low end. The Institute of Medicine estimated that deaths from medical errors may kill up to 98,000 Americans. That would bump us up to 284,000 dead. Even if we use the lower estimate, the medical profession constitutes the third leading cause of death in the United States. It goes heart disease, cancer, then... me.

One respondent pointed out that it was misleading to call medicine the third leading cause of death since many of those we kill also had heart disease or cancer. It's not like doctors are out there gunning down healthy people. Only people on medications are killed by medication errors or side-effects. You have to be in the hospital to be killed by a hospital error.

To which I respond: Exactly.

That's why lifestyle medicine is so important. The most common reasons people are on drugs and in hospitals is for diseases that can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle. The best way to avoid the adverse effects of medical care is to not get sick in the first place.

For more background on how scandalous our handwashing history has been, see my Q&A: What about Semmelweis and medicine's shameful handwashing history? It's truly an unbelievable story.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Portal PBH / Flickr

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