This morning I had breakfast with a friend who had a scary experience at the hospital. He went to the emergency department with severe stomach pain. Since he’s a man in his 60s, the hospital personnel thought he might be having a heart attack. They spent many hours looking at his heart when all along he had an infected gallbladder. By the time, days later, that they figured out what was wrong with him the gallbladder was too infected to take out. It was endangering his life. Two surgeries later, and after months of recovery, he is fine. But he could have died while the hospital focused on the wrong thing.
The hospital he went to is one of the biggest around. But is it the best? We can find out a lot of information about this hospital, but we can’t find out how likely patients are to die if they go there. That information is kept secret from the public. But why is it that we can learn more about a toaster or a television than about the safety of an institution that holds our lives in its hands?
A new study published this month showed that patients in the worst U.S. hospitals are three times more likely to die and 13 times more likely to have medical complications than patients who go to the best hospitals. The study’s authors were able to find out this information by looking at 22 million hospital admissions, and agreeing to keep the results for each hospital confidential. So we, the public, don’t know which are the hospitals where you are more likely to die, and which are the ones that are more likely to keep you alive.
According to an article about the study, some hospitals that do very well for heart attacks may be the worst when it comes to treating diabetes. You just don’t have any way to know.
This is supposed to be a free market economy. However, both government and medical providers are guarding a system where hospitals can provide a service, charge for the service, take money for the service, but don’t have to reveal much about the quality of what we are getting
Since medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States, we all have a critical need to know
We all know stories from our friends who have had scary hospital experiences. Here are just a few others from people I know:
- A former client who is a nurse was lying in his hospital bed after surgery, when another nurse came in to change the medication going into his IV. When he asked what the medication was, he realized it was something that could kill him. He told the nurse and she looked at the bag, looked back up at him, and said — honest to goodness — “Oops my bad!” She then just turned and walked out of the room.
- A friend went to the hospital with such terrible stomach pain she was unable to walk. She was told she had an inflammation of her small bowel, and could go home with some pills to take. Fortunately another doctor took a second look at her just before she was supposed to go. It turned out her colon was perforated. If she had gone much longer without treatment for it she could have died.
- Another friend went to the hospital for a stomach problem and had a severe reaction to a medication they gave her. She started acting psychotic. The hospital personnel decided that she had a history of mental illness, although she did not. That became the narrative for two days, before finally the medication was withdrawn. During this time, she was terrified out of her mind, and the condition for which she was admitted became life-threatening. She also could have died.
Of course doctors and hospitals are working hard. But just as with any service or product that we consumers purchase, some are doing better than others. The public deserves to know who is able to make the mark and who is not, so we can make our choices accordingly. Plus, it would not hurt for providers to have a market-based incentive to treat us all better.