The airline industry is in turmoil about the grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The Federal Aviation Administration took pre-emptive action because of fears that the lithium batteries could overheat and cause fires. Although no plane has crashed and no one has died, Dreamliners won’t fly until this problem is resolved.

If only the country paid as much attention to healthcare safety as to aviation safety. Plane crashes have become rare because the airline industry changed its culture to put safety first.

In healthcare, however, patient safety does not get the attention it deserves. Too many patients die every day from avoidable mistakes. Some experts estimate that the death count is equivalent to three jumbo jets crashing every day. Because TV cameras do not capture the carnage of healthcare errors, the problem is invisible.

It shouldn’t be. A study published in the medical journal Surgery (online, Dec. 17, 2012) analyzed so-called “never events”–things that are never supposed to happen, like an operation on the wrong body part or the wrong patient. Leaving an instrument in the patient at the close of an operation is another type of never event.

The authors analyzed malpractice cases between 1990 and 2010. They concluded, “Surgical never events are costly to the health care system and are associated with serious harm to patients.”

It seems to us that 21st century hospitals should have systems in place to prevent such mistakes. Some do; nevertheless roughly 40 times a week in the U.S. a sponge or a towel is left inside a patient. About 20 times a week the wrong side or the wrong body part is operated on. And the wrong operation is performed about as often. At least 4,000 never events occur in the U.S. each year. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Many such events don’t make it to a malpractice case.

One reason is that medical errors aren’t often disclosed. There is no mandatory reporting system and voluntary reporting falls short. A recent study of medication error reporting in hospitals concluded that, “When errors occur, patients and their caregivers are rarely informed.” (Critical Care Medicine, Feb., 2012).

Most hospitals have an official policy encouraging physicians and other health care providers to tell patients and families about errors. But in this recent study, barely two percent of medication mistakes were revealed.

If a pilot makes an error or has a “near miss,” that must be reported immediately. Such events are used by the entire industry to avoid similar problems and improve aviation safety. Healthcare has no similar system so mistakes are repeated in hospitals around the country.

This is why patients and their families must be on guard against likely errors, whether in the doctor’s office or the operating suite. To learn more about how to protect your loved ones, you may want to read our book Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them.

Patient vigilance can go only so far. We look forward to the day when going to the hospital will be as safe as getting on a plane.

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  1. Phil

    I really respect the work that L&D nurses do, and I understand that some of what is captured on video might “look” bad, but I am really skeptical of any policy that precludes families from videotaping their own delivery. We see a lot of deliveries these days on TLC and Discovery etc and those doctors seem fine with having their care showcased. I appreciate that no one wants to have their mistakes captured on videotape, but in keeping with the thrust of the article, I think video is a sort of black box for medical procedures. We can look back if there are problems–and look forward if there are none.

  2. VFC

    As a long time L&D nurse I very much agree with the no video ban. The father is only concentrating on his videography and is not really participating emotionally in the birth.
    Also so much of what occurs immediately/during a birth looks awful when in reality it is totally normal. In today’s world we all expect perfect babies and that is not the reality-God did not promise us perfect babies. Then these videos show up in court which is guaranteed to sway the jury’s opinion on blame. Besides a video never lives up to the wonder of the real event.

  3. Phil

    We wanted to videotape the birth of our children, but the hospital had a formal policy against videotaping. Shouldn’t patients be allowed to document the healthcare they get?

  4. p murphy

    I just saw the documentary film “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” and highly recommend it. It brings up a lot of the issues that you talk about on your show and also offers some solutions. Everyone should see this movie and get involved! Visit for more info and screenings in your area. (I believe there are 2 this week in NC)
    PEOPLE’S PHARMACY RESPONSE: You will see many experts in the movie that you have already hear on The People’s Pharmacy. Well worth seeing!

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