Medical Errors

In 1999, the US-based Institute of Medicine published a report on medical errors at American hospitals. The report was entitled "To Err Is Human." No one is perfect, right? So, why would you expect the people who take care of your health needs to be any different?

The scale and impact of medical errors are staggering. The US report estimated as many as 98,000 people die in hospital each year as the result of preventable human errors. And Canadian hospitals are not necessarily safer. In 2007, a report on patient safety by Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) found that 1 in 10 patients receive the wrong medication or the wrong dose, and another 1 in 10 contract an infection (often a superbug) while in hospital. What is most concerning is just how inured the people who work inside the system are to medical mistakes. The CIHI report found that more than 7 in 10 nurses and nearly 8 in 10 hospital managers say patients are likely to have a serious medical error while receiving treatment at a Canadian hospital.

This week, on White Coat, Black Art, we present some jarringly honest confessions from doctors and nurses on the front lines who have made medical errors. All of us -- me too -- have done things or have neglected to do things that have cost people their well being and in some cases their lives. Some of those stories will make you angry. But, it is my hope that those confessions will make you understand something that the media with its "outside-in" perspective often fails to tell -- that medical errors are also devastating to the doctors and nurse and pharmacists and others who commit them. I want to thank those who were brave enough to tell their stories on the show.

But there's more to the show than mere confessions. Seventy years ago, airplanes became more complex and harder to fly. As a result, pilot error and accident rates went up. That's when the fledgling military and civilian airline industry came to an important conclusion: that they'd have to find ways to make flying safer, or accident rates would climb. Over the years, billions of dollars and untold hours have gone into creating what's known as a "culture of safety" in flying. The result? Accident rates are considered acceptably low.

This may surprise and anger you, but there is no such "culture of safety" in hospitals. Avi Parush, a human factors engineer who once helped design fighter aircraft cockpits to make them safer for pilots to operate, has turned his attention to make things safer in a hospital operating room. Parush says it is only now that experts are starting to look at the way doctors and hospitals operate to find ways to reduce preventable errors. I found Parush's interview both revealing and troubling.

And next week, for those of you who want to sue your doctor, we'll give you an insider's look at what you're up against as you try to win your day in court.

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