Preventable medical mistakes killing 500,000 a year

It’s every patient’s worst fear. You’re being sent for a risky surgery or treatment that’s supposed to save your life — and your doctor makes a mistake.

One that could kill you.

We used to think it was the kind of thing that could happen to anyone — but now it looks like it’s happening to everyone.

A new report by the Institute of Medicine has found that hundreds of thousands of Americans are dying every year from medical errors. And most of us will be victimized by a preventable mistake at least once in our lives.

The problem is worse than the medical industry has ever admitted before. And it’s never been more important to take four simple steps today that could save you or someone you love.

A tragedy of errorsWhenever he wants his medical residents to understand how quickly a mistake can turn deadly, Dr. Andrew Olson of the University of Minnesota shares the story of Julia Berg.

She was just 15 when she died from a simple Epstein-Barr virus — but not the way you think.

You see, doctors misdiagnosed Julia as having a bad gall bladder and operated to remove it. They never realized that the undetected virus had damaged her liver and left her blood unable to clot.

She suffered a massive hemorrhage and died shortly after her surgery.

Dr. Olson says there were warning signs all along the way that Julia was getting the wrong treatment, but doctors were afraid to challenge each other.

“Everyone was giving someone else the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

And deadly medical mistakes, like the one that killed Julia, are becoming an epidemic.

Sixteen years ago, IOM first began studying the number of Americans killed each year by medical errors, and put the number at around 98,000.

But now it looks like the problem is five times worse than we ever thought. According to the latest IOM report, as many as half a million Americans are being killed by medical mistakes each and every year.

Half a million! That’s just about the same number of people who die from cancer!

So what’s going on? IOM says there are a few different factors, all happening at the same time, that make doctors more prone to making diagnostic and treatment mistakes than ever before.

First, they’re so tied up with administrative tasks and insurance requirements — especially due to government programs with lots of red tape, like Medicare and Obamacare — that they’re not spending enough time with patients.

I’m guessing most of us have experienced that problem firsthand.

Even worse, new electronic medical records requirements are causing massive confusion among docs and nurses. That’s because the information can be hard to access and is often presented in a high-tech, confusing manner.

But the biggest problem is that doctors are ordering more tests than ever before. They’re doing it to cover their backsides against lawsuits — but every unnecessary test ordered increases your chances of being misdiagnosed.

“There’s a tremendous reliance on tests,” said Helen Haskell of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine. “You have to know to order the right test, and the test has to be interpreted correctly all along the line. It’s a complicated system with a lot of opportunities for error.”

Despite how common medical errors have become, there are still things you can do to protect yourself and the people you love. The IOM recommends these four simple steps that might just save your life.

  • Don’t be embarrassed about asking too many questions. Any time you get a diagnosis, make sure you understand how your doctor reached his conclusion and ask him what else it could possibly be.
  • Never assume that your medical records are complete. Always keep your own, personal copies of all test results, referrals and any hospital admissions. And bring your records with you to appointments.
  • Keep an up-to-date list of all the medications you’re taking, what the side effects are, and any potentially dangerous interactions you may know about. Believe it or not, studies have shown that doctors ignore potentially serious drug interactions all the time.
  • When your doctor wants to run a test, make sure you understand why it’s being ordered and if you truly need it. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

We put a lot of trust in our doctors, and we should. But the bottom line is that you don’t have to defer to anyone.

After all, it’s your life we’re talking about. And with the potential for medical mistakes skyrocketing, it’s never been more important to take charge of your care when you or a loved one is ill.


“‘Countless’ patients harmed by wrong or delayed diagnoses” Steve Sternberg, September 22, 2015, U.S. News & World Report,

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