What to Fear: Hospitals


In today’s upside-down world of hyperbolized “threats,” the relative magnitude of fear is almost inversely proportional to any actual risk involved.  Take the obvious example, terrorism.  First and foremost, keep in mind Edward Herman’s distinction between the “wholesale” terrorism of the U.S. war machine, killing and crippling hundreds of thousands; and the small-scale, episodic “retail” terrorism, which is primarily a “blowback” reaction to the former.  The vast majority of Americans appear to be indifferent to wholesale—because the suffering victims are non-Americans—and terrified of retail.  Think of the widespread panic following the lethal anthrax attacks in late 2001 (the often-forgotten denouement of which was that the FBI’s prime suspect, before he committed suicide, was one of their own scientific consultants).  This fear has hardly abated–but is the terrorist threat more imposing than, say, the Missile Crisis of October 1962?  Or, more recently, Reagan’s saber-rattling rhetoric and massive armaments build-up in the early 1980s—which caused General Secretary Yuri Andropov to conclude that the U.S. was preparing to launch a nuclear war?(1)

Rational assessment of relative risks to personal safety requires comparison with other sources of potential danger.  If we truly want to know something about the real threats we face in everyday life, we can consult actuarial tables, crime statistics or epidemiological data.  Before nervously looking around an airport terminal for suspicious characters, why not drop by your friendly, local “Big-Box” hospital?   As I write this piece, I notice an article in the New York Times (11/25/10) which, with the Times’ usual unintended irony, reports hospitals’ total failure over the last decade “to reduce errors and make hospital stays less hazardous to patients’ health.”  A new, just-released study of hospitals in North Carolina has reported the astonishing incidence of “25.1 injuries per 100 admissions.”(2)

Last I checked, the Medical-Pharmaceutical Complex currently offers a bill-of-goods which includes 13,000 possible diagnoses, 6000 drugs, and 4000 surgical procedures.  Given the successful marketing of Worry—with TV drug ads and the like– almost anything we might feel or notice in our bodies or minds could be a condition requiring treatment.(3)  Caveat emptor: such a pervasive medicalization of  living itself inevitably means overmedication and overtreatment.  Since the giant hospital-corporations can in this fashion successfully bring in legions of new “customers,” they are in a position to charge premium prices for cut-rate merchandise.  Low-quality “care”–slipshod procedures, outdated equipment, overworked staff, assembly-line (and often unnecessary) surgeries—means, of course, higher profits.  The Hypocritical Oath?: “First, make money—even if you do harm.”  The result?: a stunningly high rate of “preventable medical errors”—and preventable deaths. 

In-hospital mortality studies are periodically issued (and generally ignored by those who insist on placing their blind trust in their “health caregivers”).  Health Grades, Inc., a healthcare quality organization which rates hospitals on safety and other measures, completed a Patient Safety Study for the years 2000 to 2002, and concluded that “an average of 195,000 people in the USA died [each year] due to potentially preventable, in-hospital medical errors.”   HealthGrades vice-president Dr. Samantha Collier seriously characterized such “preventable, in-hospital medical errors”—rest, perturbed Orwell–as “one of the leading killers in the U.S.”  Her startling analogy?: “the equivalent of 390 jumbo jets full of people are dying each year.”(4)  And it gets worse: in a subsequent study, Health Grades estimated roughly 305,000 such in-hospital deaths per year due to such “safety incidents.”  These figures, incidentally, do not even include the estimated 100,000 or more Americans killed each year at home—by drug interactions, incorrect dosages, etc.

To those not yet desensitized to human tragedy, such figures are horrifying—but, like the human toll of Hiroshima, really beyond the scope of human comprehension.  However abstract such figures may be—as in the case of  Iraqi “civilian casualties”—they calculate an incidence of harm experienced quitely concretely by each and every victim.   If such figures are even close to the reality, we are talking about roughly TWO MILLION people, KILLED in hospitals DUE TO PREVENTABLE MEDICAL ERRORS, since 9/11.   How many jumbo jets, full of passengers, have been destroyed each year by terrorists?

BILL MANSON previously taught social science at Columbia and Rutgers universities.  


Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race.  Vintage Books, 2008.

 Denise Grady, “Study Finds No Progress in Safety at Hospitals,” The New York Times, November 25, 2010; p. 1.

Nortin Hadler, M.D, Worried Sick. University of North Carolina Press, 2008

Medical News Today, August 9, 2004 



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