How Doctors Responded to Being Named a Leading Killer

In my video Why Prevention Is Worth a Ton of Cure, I profiled a paper that added up all the deaths caused by medical care in this country, including the hundred thousand deaths from medication side effects, all the deaths caused by errors, and so on. The author of the paper concluded that the third leading cause of death in America is the American medical system.

What was the medical community’s reaction to this revelation? After all, the paper was published in one of the most prestigious medical journals, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and was authored by one of our most prestigious physicians, Barbara Starfield, who literally wrote the book on primary care. When she was asked in an interview what the response was, Starfield replied that her primary care work had been widely embraced, but her findings on how harmful and ineffective healthcare could be received almost no attention.

This inspires the recollection of “the dark dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984, where awkward facts are swallowed up by the ‘memory hole’ as if they had never existed at all.” Report after report has come out, and the response has been a deafening silence both in deed and in word, failing to even openly discuss the problem, leading to thousands of additional deaths. We can’t just keep putting out reports, we have to actually do something.

As I discuss in my video How Doctors Responded to Being Named a Leading Killer, the first report was published in 1978, suggesting about 120,000 preventable hospital deaths a year. The response? Silence for another 16 years until another scathing reminder was published. If we multiply 120,000 by those 16 years, we get 1.9 million preventable deaths, about which there was near total doctor silence. There was no substantial effort to reduce the number of those deaths. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) then released its landmark study in 1999, asserting that yet another 600,000 patients died during that time when providers could have acted.

Some things have finally changed. Work hour limits were instituted for medical trainees. Interns and residents could no longer be worked more than 80 hours a week, at least on paper, and the shifts couldn’t be more than 30 hours long. That may not sound like a big step, but when I started out my internship, I worked 36 hour shifts every three days, 117-hour work weeks.

When interns and residents are forced to pull all-nighters, they make 36% more serious medical errors, five times more diagnostic errors, and have twice as many “attentional failures.” That doesn’t sound so bad, until you realize that means things like nodding off during surgery.

The patient is supposed to be asleep during surgery, not the surgeon.

Performance is impaired as much as a blood alcohol level that would make it illegal to drive a car—but these overworked interns and residents can still do surgery. No surprise there were 300% more patient deaths. Residents consider themselves lucky if they get through training without killing anyone. Not that the family would ever find out. With rare exceptions, doctors are unaccountable for their actions.

The IOM report did break the silence and prompted widespread promises of change, but what they did not do is act as if they really believed their own findings. If we truly believed that a minimum of 120 people every day were dying preventable deaths in hospitals, we would draw a line in the sand. If an airliner was crashing every day, we’d expect that the FAA would step in and do something. The Institute of Medicine could insistently demand that doctors and hospitals immediately adopt at least a minimum set of preventive practices—for example, bar-coding drugs so there aren’t any mix-ups, like they do for even a pack of Tic Tacs at the grocery store. Rather than just going on to write yet another report, they could bluntly warn colleagues they would publicly censure those who resisted implementing these minimum practices, calling for some kind of stringent sanctions.

Instead, we get silence. But not for Barbara Starfield, who is unfortunately no longer with us. Ironically, she may have died from one of the adverse drug reactions she so vociferously warned us about. She was placed on aspirin and the blood-thinner Plavix to keep a stent she had to have placed in her coronary artery from clogging up. She told her cardiologist she was bruising more, bleeding longer, but those side effects are the risks you hope don’t outweigh the benefits. Starfield apparently hit her head while swimming and bled into her brain.

The question for me is not whether she should have been on two blood-thinners for that long or even whether she should have had the stent inserted. Instead, I question whether or not she could have outright avoided the heart disease, which is 96% avoidable in women.

The number-one killer of women need almost never happen.

For those curious about my time in medical training, you can read my memoir of sorts, Heart Failure: Diary of a Third Year Medical Student.

It isn’t just medical treatment that can be harmful. Even medical diagnosis can be dangerous, as I discuss in my video Cancer Risk From CT Scan Radiation.

And, just as we’re (finally) seeing some changes in training protocols, the times, they are a-changin’ with the emergence of the field of lifestyle medicine, as I present in several videos, including:

 I recently made some videos to give people a closer look at why I believe it’s so important for us to take responsibility for our own health. You can see all of them on our new Introductory Videos page.

I’m excited to be part of this revolution in medicine. Please consider joining me by supporting the 501c3 nonprofit organization that keeps alive by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you so much for helping me help so many others.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

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