When the topic of medical errors comes up, people usually think of the most outrageous mistakes: the Florida doctor, for example, who amputated the wrong leg of his diabetic patient or the Colorado boy who died during ear surgery because his anesthesiologist allegedly fell asleep. Though much publicized, these egregious errors are relatively rare. Far more common are mental lapses or simple slip-ups that sometimes lead to disaster. For instance, a harried doctor misdiagnoses a patient because he cannot spend more than five minutes examining her. Or a pharmacist dispenses the wrong drug because he misreads the doctor's handwriting on the prescription.
Last fall the National Academy of Sciences's Institute of Medicine released a report entitled "To Err Is Human," which claimed that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die every year as a result of medical errors. Even the lower estimate would make errors the eighth leading cause of death, striking down more people than motor vehicle accidents or breast cancer. The report outlined a series of recommendations aimed at reducing medical errors by 50 percent over the next five years. It advocated an approach similar to that used by the aviation industry, with the focus on collecting information on errors and using this knowledge to devise safer systems and procedures. President Bill Clinton has already endorsed the report, and Congress may act on several of its recommendations this year.
This article was originally published with the title Physician, Heal Thyself.