Paul Hastings never imagined that his retirement would kick off with a near-death experience. After forty years of filing taxes for corporate clients, he was looking forward to the around-the-world trip that he and his wife had always talked about. Before the trip, he saw his doctor for a check-up. He mentioned that he sometimes had trouble catching his breath, and his doctor encouraged him to stay in the hospital overnight for some tests “to get a clean bill of health”.

In the hospital, he underwent blood draws and x-rays, which led to heart tests and a CT scan. A cardiologist told him that he had mild heart failure; a pulmonary specialist diagnosed him with borderline emphysema; an endocrine doctor thought he had early-stage diabetes. He was started on new medications, one of which made him so confused and disoriented that he fell out of bed and broke his hip.

The operation went well, but afterward, he developed a blood clot in his legs and a bladder infection. Some days later, a nurse gave him a medication that was intended for another patient, and his heart stopped for nearly two minutes.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” Paul tells me. He is in a special nursing home for recovering patients, and says he’s getting stronger by the day. I watch as he demonstrates how he pushes himself up with his hands until he can support his weight with a walker. Going eight steps from his bed to the commode takes significant effort, and he’s out of breath at the end.

“Hard to imagine that two months ago, I was running five miles a day, right?” he asks. “My life isn’t quite what it was, but that’s the way things go. Everyone knows that bad things happen in hospitals, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Paul is right on some accounts. Hospitals are dangerous places. In 1999, a landmark study by the Institute of Medicine found that 100,000 people die every year because of medical error. This is more than the deaths due to car accidents, diabetes, and pneumonia, and is equivalent to a fully-packed Boeing 747 crashing and killing all onboard every single day.

Despite advances in medicine, recent studies estimate that the number of people who die because of medical error is actually closer to a quarter of a million per year. In a stunning 2011 Health Affairs article, researchers found that medical errors occur in one-third of all hospital admissions, as much as ten times previous estimates. During a single hospitalization, many patients experience more than one error. Another study of Medicare patients found that one in seven hospitalized patients experience at least one unintended harm that prolonged the stay, caused permanent injury, required life-sustaining treatment, or resulted in death.

Perhaps this data is shocking to you, or perhaps it’s not. In a survey of the American public, a third reported a personal experience with medical error, and nearly half stated that a relative was the victim of a medical mistake. The vast majority of errors were reported to occur in hospitals.

If so many people have experienced medical errors, and if we know that hospitals can kill us, why do we accept this status quo? More importantly, what can we do to stop hospitals from harming us?

I am beginning a series in my blog, The Doctor is Listening, and in Psychology Today, that will discuss the 10 most shocking medical errors that occur in hospitals, and the 10 things you can do to prevent medical error during your hospitalization. Stay tuned!

About the Author

Leana Wen, M.D.

Leana Wen, M.D., is an emergency physician and fellow at Harvard Medical School.

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