Ask your doctor
Where he stands;
How often does
He wash his hands?

The last time our nation assessed the risks of hospitals was in 1999. The Institute of Medicine found that between 44,000 and 98,000 patients died each year from medical mistakes. Around a million others suffered injuries. Nonetheless, if you were sick, where else were you going to go?

Now there’s a new study, this one by the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services. It tells us that things have gotten even worse. According to government researchers, deaths due to errors of one kind or another now stand in the neighborhood of 250,000 every year. Well sure, the studies probably used different methods. Still, you can see why some folks opt for natural medicine and acupuncture.

Hospital-acquired infection is the gorilla in the room. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality estimates that these infections kill 100,000 Americans every year. Naturally, it’s impossible to prevent all of these too-often fatal infections, but cracking down on sloppiness has become an urgent priority. Can you imagine an airline pilot not going through his mind-numbing check list before each takeoff? He’d soon be on ground duty.

The same is true of doctors and nurses. Remembering to wash your hands countless times a day and sterilize everything has got to be mind-numbing, too. But that’s part of the job. Medical personnel must be monitored like pilots. There are already plenty of ill-motivated germs floating around the hallways. They don’t deserve a red-carpet invitation into patients’ bodies. Remember the precautions taken with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) to guard against staph and pneumonia after a gunman shot her in the head? Does everyone get that level of protection?

Blunders with prescription drugs are another big killer. A North Carolina study found that 80 percent of pharmaceutical errors could be prevented by computerizing the prescription system. It’s something to do with murky handwriting. But only one in six hospitals those researchers reviewed have such systems. They’re expensive to install and teach, but they greatly improve safety and efficiency.

Then there are the drug companies, which insinuate themselves everywhere. Some doctors actually take payments from them. Others just take trips to conferences and golf courses. Drug advertising puts great pressure on the docs to prescribe the latest magical product when the patient asks for it, appropriate or not. Maybe those sufferers deserve what they get when it backfires.

Some states, like mine, are also very weak on eliminating, or at least announcing, bad doctors. It’s worth your life in Connecticut to learn if your dear doc has ever been disciplined or has had cases brought against him. We had one sleepy anesthesiologist who killed two before they got him. Physicians chased out of other states can come here with a clean slate. How about a national registry and web site with all that data?

Malpractice insurance could use nationalization too. Perhaps a no-fault policy pool covering every doctor with the same premium, regardless of his or her specialty, would help–as long as the premium would rise the more each of them screwed up. That’s only one of many areas where our lack of a federal role in health care causes the rest of the world to laugh at us.

I guess America’s present “Wild West” health care system does allow lots of folks to make a handsome profit. But the rest of us are suffering from high health insurance premiums and unacceptably high fatality rates caused by medical errors.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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