Monday, November 29, 2010

GADFLY: How "the Greatest Health-Care System in the World" Is Our Most Serious Health Threat

Posted By on Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 8:50 AM

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Some things happened this past week that reminded me how far we have yet to go in this country to have the best health care system money can buy.

One of our guests at Thanksgiving told a story of a relative's recent experience at the hands of that system. It seems she was hospitalized for pains that ended up being gall stones, but in the process of diagnosis and treatment, she contracted an infection (an alarmingly common occurrence in hospitals) and had to receive IV medication.

In a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease, an improperly inserted IV line caused a blood clot that migrated to her brain, which caused her to have a stroke (something, amazingly enough, the hospital even admitted, maybe because the victim is one of its management employees). The story reminded me of how frequently we hear about injuries, or even death, in hospitals as a result of “complications.” Only the health care system could categorize death as a complication.

This story came on the heels of the publication (under-reported, as always) of the results of a multi-year study of the rate at which patients are harmed by medical care.

The study, published the day after Thanksgiving in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, though reported in the national media, wasn't even reported in our fair city since it was apparently of less concern than what was happening at airline checkpoints.

It confirmed what an expose of medical mistakes, ten years ago, revealed about how frequently medical care kills us, and less than a week after the government issued its own report regarding Medicare patients which showed that “adverse events” contribute over $4 billion to the cost of health care and to the deaths of 180,000 patients a year.

I had to read that number twice to make sure my eyesight wasn't deceiving me. That's like losing the population of Knoxville or Salt Lake City, every year!

People, people: our health care system is killing us at an alarming rate, and everyone's worried about being felt up by a stranger at the airport? Where's the outrage? Can you imagine what would happen if airplane accidents, or for that matter even terrorism, killed as many people as medical care does? Airline executives would be in jail and who knows how many more wars we would be launching.

You're far more likely to die in the place you go to avoid (or at least prolong) that fate than you are from exploding shoes or underwear, but guess which one gets more attention?

I've been an avid observer of the pass the health care industry seems to get from our society for so many of its failings (and no, I don't handle malpractice cases in my law practice). We have one of the most expensive health care systems in the world, so you'd think we'd also have one of the best to go along with that. After all, you get what you pay for, right?

Well, it turns out that by any standard, we're not getting what we pay for because the quality of medical care in this country is substantially below most other industrialized countries, on any of a number of criteria.

So, now that the Republicans and tea party whackadoodles are in power in Washington and so many state capitals, what can we expect from them to make health care safer? Why, of course, an attempt to repeal one of the biggest single advancements in health care in this country in 50 years (what they dismissively call “Obamacare”), and their perennial drum beat for “tort reform,” because everyone knows it's not doctors and hospitals that are killing us by the tens of thousands, it's malpractice suits.

For conservatives, there is no problem, whether it's a broken financial system or a broken health care system, that can't be effectively dealt with by denying it exists, or better yet, by preventing anything effective from being done about it. All I can say is, do your best to stay well, my friends, because as a society, we're about to get a lot sicker.

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