There is no doubt that by living in the Western World the level of health care one receives is among the best available. The quality of health care is reflected in not only innovative research, preventative medicine and new treatment options for mortal diseases, but also the life expectancy of a nation’s citizens. Even still, medical practitioners are only human, and therefore fallible to human error, and sometimes those human errors can cost patients organs, limbs and even their lives. While these ten medical mistakes are by far a minority within western hospitals, they do happen, more often than we think, and far more often than they should.
Each and every one of the entries on this list are preventable. Ranging from seemingly benign missteps to utterly shocking errors, we don’t even want to imagine any of these scenarios happening to us. Having to spend time in a hospital for any reason is bad enough, but having your stay extended, or worse (death), is the stuff of nightmares. As patients we are made comfortable putting our lives in the hands of doctors and nurses, but every time we do we run the risk (however small) of something going wrong that is out of our control.
Here are ten medical mistakes you really don’t want to experience.
10. The Wrong Surgery
The concept of going under the knife expecting your appendix to be removed and waking up with a liver transplant seems not only horrifying, but also utterly impossible. You would think so, but in fact, almost 2,500 lawsuits have been filed against hospitals since 1994, in the U.S. alone, because of wrong surgeries being performed on patients. Though there have been reports of erroneous heart surgeries, fallopian tube removals and various removals of other organs, a report from Essex, England is perhaps the most tragic. A pregnant woman suffering from appendicitis was admitted to hospital expecting to have her appendix removed; instead, a junior surgeon removed her ovary. Weeks later, after suffering severe abdominal pain, the woman returned to the hospital, where the mistake was discovered, but it was too late. Not only did the woman miscarry her baby, she also tragically passed away during surgery while finally having her appendix removed.
While we may tend to view hospitals as havens for germs and breeding grounds for illness, we also view hospitals as safe zones from physical injury. Not the case however, as over a million patients suffer in hospital-related accidents, most notably falls, while under care. What’s worse, particularly in the elderly and extremely infirm patients, is the difficultly with the use of bed rails. The FDA has acknowledged at least 500 deaths attributed to patients being strangulated when getting caught between their mattress and bed rails.
8. Operating on the Wrong Body Part
Roughly 40 procedures involving removing, amputating or operating on the wrong body part are performed per week in American hospitals. In some cases these procedure involve removing a kidney instead of a gall bladder, as was the case of a Florida man, or even amputating the wrong hand. In one case, a hospital performed three separate brain surgeries on the wrong area of the brain, in the same year. Inconceivably, many of the doctors and surgeons responsible face fines and nothing more, and are able to continue practicing. All three brain surgeries were performed by the same surgeon.
7. Wrong Meds
Prescription medication is a very controversial issue in some health care circles, with pharmaceutical proponents seeing medication as the best possible route to help pain management, chronic illness, mental illness, and provide short-term patient relief. On the other hand, there are many against the over proliferation of prescription medication seeing the practice as an extension of the big pharmaceutical companies’ agenda. Whatever the stance one takes, at the very least, the majority of patients do trust their doctors when they prescribe meds for their ailments. Unfortunately, over 50 million prescriptions written in the U.S. per year are for the wrong medication, or the wrong dose. Shockingly, in an extreme case, an elderly Florida man died after he was given a dose of a drug used in lethal injections, instead of an antacid to cure heartburn.
Much has been made in the news about hospital-born infections. They are not all that uncommon sadly, particularly in those patients who are either pregnant, elderly or whose immune systems are compromised. It is estimated by the Center for Disease Control that one in 25 patients will acquire an infection or illness while staying in the hospital every year, with an average of 75,000 of those patients dying due to it. The worst part is, the vast majority of these infections, which come from poor staff hygiene or contaminated surgical tools, are completely preventable when proper guidelines are followed.
5. Surgery on the Wrong Person
This example of a traumatic medical mistake seems inconceivable, but it happens. Patients scheduled in the operating room, expecting to wake up minus an appendix, or perhaps a tumor, instead wake up without a liver, or even a healthy prostate. Yes, it happens. How, no one can fully understand. Negligence, confusion, whatever the reason, it’s an inexcusable aspect of what can go wrong in a hospital. And, if you’re Colleen Burns from Syracuse, New York, then a medical mistake of this magnitude will most likely leave you traumatized for life. In 2009 while Burns was in hospital, she was mistaken for a corpse, and surgeons began the process of removing her organs for donor transplants, until she opened her eyes, very much alive. Horrifying.
4. Blood Transfusion… With the Wrong Blood
1 in 10 medical procedures undertaken within a hospital involve blood transfusions, making the procedure extremely common. With routine procedure can come complacency, and even mistakes. The improper labelling of blood type after collection, or the administering of the wrong blood to the proper patient are two of the most common mistakes made by hospital personnel during routine transfusions. With the epidemic of contaminated blood that rocked blood banks during the 1980s, one would think that protocol would have become even more vigilant in blood collection and transfusion. Thousands of improper blood transfusions took place between 2008 and 2009 alone, resulting in a multitude of deaths.
3. Left Untreated Until it is Too Late
Much has been made in North America over the debate on the differences between the American and Canadian health care systems, with the argument that Canadians wait much, much longer in Emergency Rooms for treatment than Americans. In fact, studies show this to not be true at all, with Canadians waiting a little longer for care in ER’s, but having better access to after hours care. True, Canadians can wait for a lengthy amount of time in an Emergency Room, the most prominent examples being in Manitoba, long considered some of the worst health care providers in the country, where numerous patients died while waiting in the ER for treatment, or left before even being seen, only to pass away hours later. While a very uncommon scenario, it does happen. It happens in the U.S. as well. In 2010 over 200 patients died in hospital while waiting for emergency medical care, with speculation other cases go unreported.
The idea of entering an Emergency Room with symptoms you can’t explain with hopes that a doctor will be able to discern and diagnose your condition properly, and then help treat said condition, is the cornerstone of emergency medical care. Furthermore, the assumption that a physician will be able to accurately read and review a patient’s test results and also offer a positive diagnosis of what ails them is why we put our trust in doctors. Unfortunately, doctors are human as well, and sometimes their ability to recognize symptoms of serious and life threatening illnesses are either compromised or non-existent. The case of a woman suffering neck pain who was told she was merely suffering muscle spasm, but in fact was having a stroke, is a prominent example of a misdiagnosis that ended in tragedy when the woman died days later after returning to the same E.R. that sent her home in the first place. Or the young man told he had severe food poisoning, when in fact he had a tumor growing in his chest, who died of Lymphoma a day after being admitted for dehydration. Unfortunately, cases like these are not nearly as uncommon as we would hope; over 80,000 Americans die from misdiagnosis every year.
Probably the most terrifying risk involving hospital mishaps, air embolisms are a haunting concept. The fact that what keeps us alive can kill us because of a mistake keeps at least this writer on high alert anytime a needle goes into my vein. When air enters the blood, either during surgery or during improper application of a catheter or even a venous drip, that air can cause a pulmonary embolism, which not only have a 30 percent fatality rate, but are also the leading cause of avoidable death in U.S. hospitals. It’s truly a terrifying proposition that even the most routine visits to the Emergency Room and even the most common of surgeries could run you the risk of an embolism, or any of the other calamitous mistakes on this list.