Medical Mistakes: More Common Than You Think

June 18, 2008

When Kristina Fox, 35, checked into a Portland, Ore., hospital in 1998 for a routine outpatient procedure to treat endometriosis, she assumed she’d be back at work in a couple of days. But during the procedure, a malfunctioning surgical instrument seared a tiny hole in her colon. That mistake turned into a cascade of complications: The hole opened the way for bowel contents to move into her abdomen, causing a raging infection. “They opened me up from belly button to pelvic bone and washed me out with 35 gallons of sterile saline,” Fox says. “They said I wasn’t going to survive.” She pulled through, but as a result this mother of two has undergone 20 operations to treat an impaired bladder that forces her to go to the bathroom 30 to 40 times a day. She can no longer work or have more children.

You hear about mistakes like this and think, How could this happen here, in America, where our medical system is second to none? “We’ve made tremendous advances in saving lives. We can nearly cure childhood leukemia and many other types of cancer. And yet, around 98,000 people die in hospitals every year primarily of mistakes and many, many more suffer preventable harm,” says Peter Pronovost, MD, professor in the departments of anesthesiology and critical care, surgery, and health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. One study suggests that if you randomly pull 100 hospital charts, you’ll find 40 errors.

Frightening screwups happen at even the most well-respected medical centers, a point driven home last November when, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, actor Dennis Quaid’s 2-week-old twins, Zoe Grace and Thomas Boone, received near-fatal, thousandfold overdoses of the blood thinner Heparin. The Dennis Quaid case wasn’t a fluke either: In 2006, three premature babies in Indianapolis died from the same mistake. Medication errors injure 1 in 15 children admitted to hospitals each year, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics—five times more than was previously believed.

 
By Lorie A. Parch
Additional reporting by Kimberly Holland and Brittani Tingle


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