Why can't medicine be as safe as flying?

Medical errors are far more common than previously believed

Patient safety is something about which we all should be concerned. You never know when you will become ill or have a serious accident or medical condition develop. So it is important for all of us that throughout the healthcare industry, patient safety is a top priority because the patient may be you.

It has been a concern for a long time. Remarkably, it has been 16 years since the release of the important "To Err is Human" study, which shocked many people in the U.S. by reporting that more than 100,000 patients die every year due to preventable errors committed by their doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.

It is remarkable, because, in spite of that surprisingly large number, those 16 years have not seen the hoped-for improvements that one may have expected. Disappointingly, not only have there not been significant reductions in patient deaths, but the numbers have become even more distressing. Recently, with more rigorous methodology, a report from 2013 suggests the statistic today is probably closer to 400,000.

Like a 747 crashing twice a day

A striking contrast is often made to commercial aviation in the U.S. As 2015 closes, there has not been a crash involving a major U.S. airline, and amazingly, that has been true every year since 2010. By comparison, if the numbers from the 2013 healthcare report are accurate, almost 2 million Americans have died due to medical errors and mistakes by doctors, nurses, and hospitals in that same 5-year period.

The staggering death toll from medical mistakes and errors is so large that it is difficult to grasp. One doctor suggested the image of two 747s crashing every day to illustrate the scale of deaths from preventable errors. He noted that such failure would not be permitted in other areas, such as the commercial aviation business.

The aviation industry has been able to minimize the risk to the flying public because of rigorous examinations of crashes by the National Transportation Safety Board and by using their investigations and findings to learn how to prevent future accidents.

A NTSB for medical errors

Medicine should follow this example. Rigorous examinations of malpractice should be the standard, to determine the cause and as important, develop procedures and fail-safes that prevent their reoccurrence.

Questions should be asked and examinations should be public. Unsafe doctors should be removed from practice and safety procedures and mechanisms should be in place and continuously refined.

With the presence of portable electronic devices, doctors memorizing information should be discouraged. To a patient, at a critical juncture in treatment, for doctors or nurses to rely on fallible human memory as opposed to a computerized record for drug type or dosage is irresponsible, yet it is how much the industry still operates.

Aircraft crashes and passenger deaths used to be relatively common 50 years ago, but a concerted effort was made reduce this risk. If the healthcare industry followed a similar path, 50 years from now the current staggering death toll could be but an unpleasant memory.