Most of us have heard the story of someone who went to the hospital to get their tonsils taken out, and ended up getting a leg amputated instead; maybe not down to the detail, but you get the point. Medical mixups have been around as long as medicine itself, and it’s highly likely that even Hippocrates killed a few patients with his archaic beliefs and practices.
It’s just as likely that he cured quite a few people using the placebo effect, considering his approach; which is kind of acknowledging that Hippocrates taught magic as much as he did medicine. Dressing impeccably and presenting himself with confidence can’t really be considered part of the science of diagnosing and treating disease, of course; but it still counts as a cure, if it works. Also, we already went down the rabbit hole with the father of modern medicine in this series awhile back; so we’ll go with a more updated take on this problem, and leave the good dead doctor alone for now.
Since those early days, the medical field has changed in a number of ways. Most developed countries have looked for the best ways to provide healthcare to everyone, which means pretty much each individual in those places has equal access to treatment. America took a different path, dumping this responsibility on the individual or the company they work for. Essentially, this has created the most hard and fast caste system the world has ever seen; the more money you have in this country, the better the care you can afford.
Those who suffer from chronic conditions can attest to this, more than anyone. Most of us are marginally inconvenienced by this reality, in comparison to the way they have to endure it. We might even go so far as to say someone being treated with no hope of a cure can still count themselves lucky in at least one regard. For some people, this situation quite literally translates to: be rich, or be dead.
Americans are often shocked when they go to a hospital in other developed countries, since they get medical treatment as good or better than they expect back home but no bill for the visit. By the same token, rich people from around the world travel to America to get the best care. They know our system attracts some of the best practitioners, even if very few Americans can afford to pay them. Nothing is more valuable than being healthy, so we can’t really blame these doctors or patients for interacting in this way; but it’s still a little disturbing to know that many of the people who need the very best care will never get it simply because they don’t have enough money to buy it.
This puts top doctors out of the reach of nearly everyone, which makes it tempting to exclude this elite group from this discussion. However, those numbers are balanced out by the practitioners on the other end of the spectrum. From waiting room to treatment options, one experience is geared towards effectiveness while the other often wallows in inefficiency. The average appointment may make the patient wonder how someone who can’t keep a schedule is expected to deliver a diagnosis or perform an operation, while being completely aware that it’s also their only option.
And that’s just the typical experience.
For every routine surgery or treatment, there is not an example of another going horribly wrong. Those examples exist, of course; but they’re not as common as easy procedures that go exactly as planned. Our numbers get skewed by a number of other factors; when we start to take them into account, the title of this post begins to make a lot more sense. Even if medicine doesn’t kill as many people as it saves, the ratio of one to the other is likely higher than we might like to think.
About seventy percent of doctor visits don’t need to happen, according to statistics. Most things go away on their own, if we give them time to; and just a handful of hypochondriacs can drive these numbers up without the rest of us running to the doctor every time we get the sniffles. Antibiotics have become less effective over time, as more and more of us take them to knock out a common cold instead of waiting for something serious to come along before we seek treatment. When the serious ailment comes, the antibiotics don’t work. In this example, the original treatment was not life saving; but the failure of the second was life ending. That’s not a score of one to one; that’s zero saves to one death.
Chart mixups might be less common than ever; but if we tell that to the person it happens to, it probably won’t be much comfort. Folks still check in to get their tonsils taken out and end up getting a limb cut off, or go to sleep expecting to wake up with one leg gone while it’s the other that actually gets amputated. Maybe we can’t count those, if the patient doesn’t die; but we still have all those people who go under for elective surgery and have a bad reaction to the anesthesia to account for. Plastic surgeons almost never save lives; but they are just as capable of ending them as any other surgeon, if things go wrong.
Actually, a lot of things have changed since I first heard that medicine kills as many people as it saves. Instances of plastic surgery are way up, which logically means the deaths they cause must be way up as well. Medicine used to be for sick people, but it has somehow poked its nose into many other aspects of our lives. People go to doctors when they want to look different, when they’re depressed, and when they haven’t been to see one in a while. Those never used to be reasons to call a doctor; now they’re fairly common ones. Elective procedures are more popular than ever; and elective means optional, which means they are not life threatening. Once again, zero cures gets thrown off balance pretty quickly by even one accidental death.
In light of all this, I even changed the title of this post.
Originally, I was going to call this one ‘Medicine kills as many as it cures’. Then I had to remind myself that this field has shifted from finding cures to developing treatments in recent decades, at least in this country; and I realized modern medicine probably truly cures way less people than it kills. More folks than not are being treated for something, and sometimes that treatment has consequences that are as dire as they come. That’s why almost every advertisement for pills warns that death could ensue, if the wrong person takes it.
When we account for the fact that most of these medications are never meant to heal, even one death skews these percentages in an alarming direction. Getting your leg amputated because someone hung the wrong chart on your hospital bed is pretty freaky, but it really doesn’t compare with dropping dead because your unique chemical cocktail doesn’t mix right with your new prescription.
Most of us find those drug ads a little chilling, especially when they get to the rushed monologue at the end. I have always been in that boat, but I didn’t always know the United States was only one of two countries that still hasn’t made this practice illegal. Now it has become a big part of why healthcare is too expensive for many Americans, as well as why even the government couldn’t foot the bill at this point.
Countless people file bankruptcy because of medical costs every year in the United States, and the country is ranked eleven out of eleven when it comes to healthcare in developed nations. Those broken by medical bills may be the lucky ones, since they get to live; but they’re not as lucky as the folks who receive superior healthcare at no cost to them. This used to be a country where the citizens all got to be feel fortunate for having been born here, and in many ways it still is; but this is not one of those instances. As long as the system stays the same, the situation will remain untenable for a lot of people; and one of the first things that has to change is the drug companies’ ability to advertise directly to consumers.
That’s why next week’s post will be called…
‘Advertising drugs is illegal!’*
*Except in New Zealand and the United States.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,