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Sunday, March 30th 2008

A Celebrity Takes Up The Medical Error Cause

Dennis Quaid’s twins received an overdose of heparin recently, partly due to a drug labeling problem. Now, understandably, he’s taking up the cause of medical errors.

Quaid said he applauds the hard work of individual health care professionals, but said the medical system is inexcusably broken. As a pilot, he offered up the airline industry as one the medical system can learn from, using the oft-quoted analogy that the number of people who die from preventable medical mistakes would be “equivalent to one commercial airline crash every day of every year.”

Airplane crashes are dramatic, and thus attract public attention, which then demands accountability. Unfortunately, most patients who die unnecessarily in hospitals from medical errors, do so silently with only their family and friends as witnesses, he said. He plans to end the silence.

“Public accountability spurs innovation,” Quaid said.

There are unique components of medical care which obviously make preventing errors in health care different than preventing commercial airline crashes. But it isn’t such a terrible analogy; the rate of medical errors is obviously unacceptable.

There were 745 million passengers flown by commercial airlines in 2005. There were 22 airline passenger deaths that same year. Or approximately one for every 33.8 million passengers.

In 2006 there were 37 million hospital admissions. No specific data on fatal hospital errors for that year are available. The IOM’s now famous To Err Is Human report cited several older studies. If we are as generous to health care as possible and use the old, lower estimates of yearly fatalities then that is still 44,000 deaths a year (likely higher in reality, if for no other reason than the US hospital admissions have grown since the studies which concluded that figure). In any case, that’s one for every 851 patients.

Like I said, there are plenty of problems with trying to compare these two figures but learly there is a lot of work to be done. If unrealistic, the attitude should be that a single death due to medical error is inexcusable.