Medical Error May Be America’s Third Leading Cause of Death


Here's something we didn't see coming: According to The Washington Post, researchers estimate that medical error is our nation’s third leading cause of death, following cancer and heart disease. We say “estimate,” because they don’t know for sure; the U.S. doesn’t keep track of deaths by medical error. The researchers published their report in the British Medical Journal this week.

The words “medical error” encompass many things, from giving a patient too much medication to leaving a surgical sponge inside someone’s body. “While many errors are non-consequential, an error can end the life of someone with a long life expectancy or accelerate an imminent death,” the authors write. 

They describe the case of a young woman who received an organ transplant and was on the path to recovery when she began feeling unwell. She returned to the hospital, where staff performed a number of unnecessary and invasive tests. During one test, a needle grazed her liver, which led to a pseudoaneurysm, which killed her. The hospital listed her cause of death as “cardiovascular.”

The most commonly cited assessment of national death-by-medical-error data was conducted by the Institute of Medicine nearly 20 years ago in 1999. That report estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans were dying from medical errors every year. Even as that report was being drafted, other scientists argued that the numbers were much higher. 

Co-authors and Johns Hopkins University of Medicine researchers Martin Makary and Michael Daniel used data from these reports and many others to estimate the percent of hospital patients who died due to medical errors. They then applied that percentage to the number of people admitted to hospitals in 2013 and learned that between 210,000 to 400,000 of those people would have experienced fatal medical errors. 

And those are just the people in the hospital. There have been no studies examining the rate of medical error deaths at home, at doctor’s offices, or in nursing homes and other residential treatment facilities. The absence of this data is not just problematic; it’s also unscientific. 

“Sound scientific methods, beginning with an assessment of the problem, are critical to approaching any health threat to patients,” the authors write. “The problem of medical error should not be exempt from this scientific approach.”

Still, they recognize that doctors, nurses, and other practitioners are human, and that, like all of us, they will make mistakes. They write, “Although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences.”

[h/t The Washington Post]

What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?

Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Stephen Hawking’s Memorial Will Beam His Words Toward the Nearest Black Hole
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

An upcoming memorial for Stephen Hawking is going to be out of this world. The late physicist’s words, set to music, will be broadcast by satellite toward the nearest black hole during a June 15 service in the UK, the BBC reports.

During his lifetime, Hawking signed up to travel to space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship, but he died before he ever got the chance. (He passed away in March.) Hawking’s daughter Lucy told the BBC that the memorial's musical tribute is a “beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father's presence on this planet, his wish to go into space, and his explorations of the universe in his mind.” She described it as "a message of peace and hope, about unity and the need for us to live together in harmony on this planet."

Titled “The Stephen Hawking Tribute,” the music was written by Greek composer Vangelis, who created the scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. It will play while Hawking’s ashes are interred at Westminster Abbey, near where Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried, according to Cambridge News. After the service, the piece will be beamed into space from the European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain. The target is a black hole called 1A 0620-00, “which lives in a binary system with a fairly ordinary orange dwarf star,” according to Lucy Hawking.

Hawking wasn't the first person to predict the existence of black holes (Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity accounted for them back in the early 1900s), but he spoke at length about them throughout his career and devised mathematical theorems that gave credence to their existence in the universe.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a friend of the Hawking family who portrayed the late scientist in the BBC film Hawking, will speak at the service. In addition to Hawking's close friends and family, British astronaut Tim Peake and several local students with disabilities have also been invited to attend.

[h/t BBC]


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