My dad died because of a misdiagnosis. Instead of listening to complaints that his leg hurt, the doctor called my dad a wimp.
You see, dad had broken his tibia and fibula after a slip on the ice in the parking lot of our New Jersey apartment complex when I was 9 years old. The break was so bad, doctors had to install a metal plate, complete with screws.
When dad went in for a cast change, he complained of discomfort. That’s when the doctor resorted to the “wimp” word.
Dad had trouble breathing later that night. Mom called the doctor, who proceeded to prescribe the exact opposite drug dad needed. Dad’s face was B-L-U-E the next morning, and yet mom still had to argue with the doctor that something was terribly wrong.
By the time dad arrived at the hospital, it was too late. An embolism caused by a blood clot that formed around the metal plate in dad’s leg had cut off the blood supply to the brain and killed him.
The doctor told the judge that this was a rare occurrence. It only happened in 20 percent of cases with similar breaks. I guess 20 percent was rare to this doctor.
It turns out 20 percent is another key statistic: doctors misdiagnose fatal illnesses one-in-five times, reports The New York Times. And that rate hasn’t changed since the 1930s.
Despite huge advancements in medicine, doctors still struggle to get diagnoses correct. Is there something wrong with medical schools or with the people who become doctors?
Maybe, but I don’t think that explains the problem. Most doctors I know work very hard for their patients. But the medical system does not.
Here’s one scenario, as explained in the Times:
Joseph Britto, a former intensive-care doctor, likes to compare medicine’s attitude toward mistakes with the airline industry’s. At the insistence of pilots, who have the ultimate incentive not to mess up, airlines have studied their errors and nearly eliminated crashes.
“Unlike pilots,” Dr. Britto said, “doctors don’t go down with their planes.”
That may be a bit unkind. I think most doctors suffer internally whenever a patient gets sicker or dies. But the system encourages doctors to keep quiet about mistakes out of fear of malpractice lawsuits. The result: doctors often fail to learn from the experiences of their colleagues.
That’s not the only way the medical system is structured to work against the patient:
- Medical costs discourage patients from seeing their doctors in the first place.
- Doctors spend so much time fighting government red tape and trying to negotiate payments with insurance companies, there is little time left to treat patients.
- The medical system is financially geared toward treatment rather than prevention. After all, no one makes money if everyone is healthy.
Worse, insurance companies financially lose when preventative programs help sick people get better. That’s because a successful preventative program attracts costly sick people to the insurance plan.
- There are simply not enough doctors, who are overworked, to go around in this nation.
- The lack of truly standardized billing and paper work practices means that crucial information never gets relayed from doctor to specialist to clinic to hospital.
- The medical system financially rewards doctors who perform less necessary procedures such as elective cosmetic surgery and punishes those who choose to be family doctors and pediatricians.
- Pharmaceutical companies push drugs in favor of other treatment programs, such as exercise and healthy eating.
- As a result, the health care system most benefits the wealthy and punishes the poor, which you can read about in this New Yorker article.
Studies vary on just how dangerous America’s health care system is for its users. As many as 98,000 Americans die each year as a direct result of medical errors, reports USA Today. If adverse drug reactions were included, the numbers would be much higher.
In the meantime, parents and children pay the price: expensive care that can threaten lives. There is no simple solution. This sick medical system is deeply entrenched in our culture, economy and political system. An exceptionally strong leader is needed to tackle this beast and heal it.