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

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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]

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crime
Exhumation Confirms Gravesite of World's Fair Killer H.H. Holmes
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It’s a sordid true crime tale that has few peers. By 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair, a man named H.H. Holmes had converted a sprawling property into an amusement house of murder, filled with secret passages, gas chambers, ovens, and the bodies of young women who made the mistake of booking a room.

Holmes eventually confessed to over two dozen murders and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1896. His body was tossed into a plot at Holy Cross Cemetery near Philadelphia. But ever since then, there has been speculation that Holmes somehow cheated death and may not have been buried there at all. Those rumors can now officially be laid to rest as researchers have confirmed that the remains buried at Holmes's gravesite do in fact belong to the serial killer, according to the AP.

In May, NBC Chicago 5 reported that two of Holmes’s great-grandchildren had persuaded a Pennsylvania court to allow the inspection of their relative’s body in the hope that DNA testing would settle the issue of whether Holmes faked his own death once and for all.

According to newspaper accounts of the era, Holmes requested that his coffin be laid over cement, then topped off with more of the same. That led to a belief that Holmes had somehow eluded his appointment with the noose by offering bribes to law enforcement and had his tomb sealed to prevent any investigation into the matter. Other accounts, including one from the Chicago Tribune on May 8, 1896, appeared certain it was Holmes (real name: Herman Webster Mudgett) who was hung by his neck.

The definitive answer came with assistance from the University of Pennsylvania's Anthropology Department, which agreed to assist Holmes's descendants. The results of that testing were confirmed earlier this week on the series finale of American Ripper, a History Channel series that documented the exhumation and the scientists' search for the truth.

University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Samantha Cox, who was part of the team, said it was a difficult job. Even though his body had decomposed, because of Holmes's very specific burial requests, his clothes were almost perfectly intact, as was his ever-present mustache.

“It stank,” Cox said. “Once it gets to that point we can’t do anything with it. We can’t test it, can’t get any DNA out of it.” Instead, Cox and her colleagues had to use Holmes's teeth to identify him.

[h/t AP]

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entertainment
Terry Pratchett's Unfinished Works Were Just Crushed By a Steam Roller
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Say so long to dreams of posthumous Terry Pratchett novels. According to the late author’s wishes, his computer’s hard drive has been destroyed by steamroller, taking any unfinished work with it. According to the BBC, it may have held up to 10 incomplete novels.

The destruction, which no doubt crushed the hearts of many a historian in addition to the megabytes of data, took place at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, a five-day cultural event dedicated to steam-powered machinery.

Pratchett’s longtime assistant Rob Wilkins, who has been managing Pratchett’s estate since the author died in 2015, was the one who found a steamroller to complete the author’s mandate. Pratchett wanted to prevent his unfinished projects from being completed by anyone else. Considering Pratchett’s status as a literary hero, it probably wasn’t a crazy fear. His last novel, published five months after his death, sold almost 53,000 copies in its first three days on the shelves.

Apparently, though, not only are steamrollers hard to find, they’re not as effective for destroying computer hardware as you’d think. “The steamroller totally annihilated the stone blocks underneath but the hard drive survived better than expected so we put it in a stone crusher afterwards which I think probably finally did it in,” Richard Henry, curator of the upcoming Salisbury Museum exhibition Terry Pratchett: His World, told the BBC.

The pieces of the crushed drive will be on display at the museum when the exhibition opens on September 16. And that’s not the only upcoming display of love for Pratchett in Salisbury, his hometown. The city will also be getting a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of the author soon.

[h/t BBC]

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