Sensational Medical Reporting


Is the list of "10 shocking medical mistakes" informational or just sensational?

I have to admit that I get sucked right in when sensational medical headlines appear on my computer’s homepage. A case in point was the June 9, 2012, CNN headline news of “10 shocking medical mistakes” reported by John Bonifield and Elizabeth Cohen (view article). As I’m sure the reporters were hoping, I was curious when I read the headline and wanted to see what kinds of things made this top ten list. I also wanted to assess the accuracy of the reporting.

The ten shocking medical mistakes and “ways not to become a victim” included patient misidentification (make sure staff checks your identity) and retained surgical “equipment” “(if you have unexpected pain, ask if you might have a surgical instrument inside you”). I laughed out loud when I read this; although not an impossible occurrence, it’s much more likely that a sponge would be left behind. This list continued with “lost patients” (patients who wonder because of dementia); however, I wonder how this constitutes a medical mistake. I laughed again with “fake doctors” and the advice to confirm that your physician is licensed. Probably better advice is for consumers to go to a hospital’s physician finder site, Health Grades, or a similar informational site to learn about a physician’s education, training, certification, etc. The next item on the list was the “ER waiting game,” with the suggestion of calling your physician on the way to the emergency room so that you won’t “get sicker while waiting for care.” This is a troubling suggestion as the whole point of emergency care is that it is emergency care. If you’re in good enough shape to call your physician on the way to the ER, you probably should be going to an urgent care center or the physician’s office instead. Air embolism was the next mistake, followed by operating on the wrong site surgery. I’d like to look up the statistics on this, as I believe that the incidence of wrong site surgery has dramatically decreased as a result of the safety measures mandated by The Joint Commission. Infection spread by hospital workers not washing their hands was next on the list, and the advice was to make sure that workers’ hands are washed. “Look alike tubes” was mistake #9 and the example was that a chest tube and feeding tube can look alike. The corresponding example, however, was that of a toddler who was given tube feedings via a central venous catheter (not a chest tube). The last mistake was “waking up during surgery.” The writers ended their piece by asking readers to submit their personal stories of medical mistakes.

And submit them they did---over 1200 comments posted in a couple of days. Many of the mistakes reported were common complications of treatment that can occur as result of other causes, not because of mistakes. One person pointed out that infection, for instance, can also occur from visitors not washing their hands prior to touching a patient. Another person, an RN, wrote that the piece was fear mongering at its best. I have to agree.

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