CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A worried doctor has written a disturbing book about an estimated 100,000 Americans killed each year by hospital and medical errors. Dr. Marty Makary says this tragic toll could be reduced sharply if hospitals were forced to reveal their malpractice statistics instead of concealing them.
"When I was a medical student, modern medicine began to seem as dangerous and dishonest as it was miraculous and precise," begins an excerpt from Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won't Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care published in Newsweek.
"My research partner lost his father due to a medical error," the book says. "My medical partner lost his younger sister due to a medical error. My best friend's mom had her breast removed unnecessarily because she was mistakenly told she had stage-three breast cancer. My grandfather died at age 60 from a preventable infection following a surgery he didn't need. Andy Warhol died prematurely of a mistreated gallstone at 54." Etc., etc.
The book quotes the president of the U.S. Institute of Medicine as estimating "that between 30 and 40 percent of our entire health care expenditure is paying for fraud and unnecessary treatment. While patients are encouraged to think that the health-care system is competent and wise, it's actually more like the Wild West."
A 2010 New England Journal of Medicine report calculated that one-fourth of U.S. hospital patients suffer errors, and 100,000 die from them each year. Makary notes that this is "the sixth-leading cause of death in the country."
He cites a Milwaukee cardiologist whose research found that 29 percent of heart-echo interpretations at her hospital were incorrect. After she presented her findings at a national conference, the hospital fired her (but said her dismissal wasn't related to her embarrassing disclosure).
One study found that fewer than half of workers in some medical units said they would feel safe as patients in their own units.
The author says computerized recordkeeping soon will enable authorities to track patients and pinpoint malpractice. He says the government's National Practitioner Data Bank lists doctors with bad records -- but this information is hidden from patients and the public.
Simply publishing "bad outcome" figures from hospitals stampedes them into safety crackdowns -- as occurred in the 1990s when New York state revealed high mortality rates -- Makary wrote. Heart bypass deaths at Erie County Medical Center fell from 18 percent to 1.7 percent.
No doctors or nurses want to harm patients. If the glare of public disclosure can reduce the dismal rate of malpractice ills, it should be mandated nationwide.