Sometimes, doctors can be killers.
I'm not talking about homicide. I mean that the folks we trust with our lives make lethal mistakes... And it happens more often than you might expect.
British researchers just released a report with a staggering finding: one in 20 patients are victims of preventable harm in medical care. And of those folks, about 12% suffer permanent disability or death.
The Brits aren't the only ones with this problem, either. Here in the U.S., we face a similar issue.
In 2015, we wrote about a study that shocked us. Published in the Journal of Patient Safety, the paper claimed that as many as 440,000 Americans die annually from hospital errors, injuries, accidents, and infections... that's roughly one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the U.S. each year.
But here's the thing... that study took some liberties with how they got those numbers. It used insurance billing codes to calculate the number of patients with adverse events, which doesn't account for whether the adverse event directly caused the patient's death.
Earlier this year, JAMA released a study spanning over two decades – it showed that about 2.8% of all U.S. deaths were due to adverse effects of medical treatment. That's about 78,000 folks each year, not 440,000. That's not as scary, but it's still too high.
To help put that in perspective... In 2018, about 36,750 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
So even with the lower estimate from JAMA, you're still more than twice as likely to die from a medical error than from a car accident.
And this time of year is one of the worst for medical mistakes. That's why I wanted to review three of my top ways to stay safe from medical errors...
1. Avoid the hospital during the summer.
Going to a "teaching hospital" in the months of June, July, and August is even more dangerous than usual...
If you or a loved one is considering any sort of hospital visit for an elective or nonemergency procedure, you should absolutely stay clear of any medical facility that is considered a "teaching hospital" during the summer.
Doctors in training, or so-called "residents," start training every year on July 1.
So in June, the senior residents leaving for the real world are unconcerned about taking care of you... They are thinking about getting out of there and finding a real job to pay down their six-figure debt.
The new doctors coming in on July 1 just graduated from medical school. Most can't yet find their way out of a paper bag.
But worse... the senior hospital staff doctors, called "attendings," who are supposed to supervise the new kids, are taking summer vacations. Most let the senior residents run the show.
The good news is that the problem is temporary.
Once September hits, the new docs have a few months of experience under their belts. And the attendings are back at work and supervising again... And the hospital is as safe as it gets.
2. Choose the right hospital.
Aside from avoiding a teaching hospital, you should take the time to find the best hospital for your upcoming procedure or surgery.
Now, this isn't always an option if it's an emergency, but for most situations, you should do your research.
Look for clinics and hospitals that are in-network, or covered by your insurance policy, to avoid ludicrous bills. For example, the news reported last week on a Montana couple that landed themselves with a half-million-dollar medical bill for dialysis...just because they went to an out-of-network center.
Similarly, if you unexpectedly wind up going to the hospital and they keep you overnight, insist they list you as "inpatient." If you're outpatient, insurance won't cover as much.
Choose the best hospital for your specialty. We've recommended many times about going to the best cancer care center for the type of cancer you have. You can find our original article on this right here.
For other problems, we recommend following the rankings from U.S. News & World Report. They have an annual ranking of the best hospitals nationwide as well as by region. They look at data such as survival rates for procedures, number of beds, staffing, and medical errors and oversights. You can find their ratings based on area here.
Medicare.gov also offers a hospital comparison tool. The breadth of data is larger and includes payments and value of care. Take a look at the closest hospitals to you, right here. We recommend combining both this tool along with the specialties through U.S. News & World Report. Some hospitals for Medicare may rank lower overall, but have the best in a specialty, like cardiology. Making an informed decision is the best course for any pre-planned medical visit.
3. Research your doctor.
The right doctor can mean the difference between life and death. Surgical complications affect about 2% to 4% of most common surgeries.
But according to Stanford University, the worst 1% of surgeons are responsible for nearly a third of all malpractice claims.
As I've advised before, ask your surgeon for a printout of his statistics. He should keep them on a computer. If not, run out of the office. In addition, check his status with the American Board of Medical Specialties. He should be up to date on his exams and certified in surgery. You can find that right here.
You can also search by state for criminal convictions and malpractice claims against your surgeon. Go here to get started.
What We're Reading...
- A good explanation on the 400,000 study.
- Something different: A horrible hospital error endured by this 28 year old.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
July 30, 2019