Patient Safety and Unnecessary Treatment

I just wrote this oped which is being sent out by the Progressive Media Project and has been published in a number of newspapers.  Here’s one from the Merced Sun-Star.

For National Patient Safety Awareness Week, we need to take more care


McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceMarch 4, 2014

As we celebrate National Patient Safety Awareness Week, we should ask ourselves why so many doctors are violating the Hippocratic Oath: “First Do No Harm.” It’s what newly minted physicians promise when they graduate from medical school. But it’s a promise that too often goes unkept, with lethal consequences.

As many as 440,000 patients die each year from preventable mistakes. Shockingly, medical harm is the third leading cause of death in the United States, just behind heart disease and cancer.

One reason for this epidemic of patient harm is that hospitals and other health care institutions tolerate staff who routinely ignore proven safety procedures. Fifty percent of health-care workers don’t clean their hands, even though hand-cleaning is the most effective infection prevention mechanism. Too many surgeons fail to implement checklists and timeouts that would assure they are operating on the right limb or organ. Nurses are so harried that they don’t have time to make sure they are giving the right medication to the right person, in the right dose at the right time. And too many lower-level hospital staff don’t challenge higher-level professionals who are about to make a mistake because they fear being reprimanded or even fired.

We know that more than 75 percent of medical errors and injuries result from poor communication and lousy teamwork. Yet, the health care industry (unlike the airline industry) does not routinely train staff at all levels in the basic skills of teamwork and communication. Another reason so many people suffer from medical harm is that too many physicians are putting patients at risk by prescribing invasive treatments patients don’t even need.

For example, decades worth of studies document the dangers of mammograms to women between 40 and 49 with no risk of breast cancer, yet they are still part of routine screening programs. Orthopedists are still recommending surgery for back pain even though studies have long documented that this often does more harm than good.

Or consider the cancers that result from unnecessary CT scans, which are doled out to patients who have no idea that a CT is not in fact one X-ray but a bundle of hundreds. Finally, think of how many people are placed in jeopardy – and dollars misspent – when for-profit health care chains, like Hospital Corporation of America or Health Management Associates, push physicians to admit more patients who would be better treated on an outpatient basis.

Reducing the high number of deaths and injuries caused by medical error is not hard. The federal government has already developed a voluntary program (called TeamSTEPPS) to improve the quality and safety of patient care. Many hospitals have started to use it, with excellent results.

But more need to do so, and every medical facility should upgrade its own internal patient-safety standards.

Until that happens, Hippocrates’ injunction to doctors – “first do no harm” – will remain neatly framed, but too often ignored, on many a medical office wall.


Suzanne Gordon’s latest book is “Beyond the Checklist: What Else Health Care Can Learn from Aviation Teamwork and Safety,” published by Cornell University Press. She is co-editor of the Culture and Politics of Health Care Work Series at Cornell University Press. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; email:; Web site: For information on PMP’s funding, please visit

This article was prepared for The Progressive Media Project and is available to MCT subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

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  • Ruth Ann Golden

    Read your article in the Scranton Times Tribune and couldn’t agree with you more.Having been in the nursing profession for over 30+ years I have seen such a change in attitude,technique and personal appearance of the nursing professionals..Modern technology and the increased amount of paperwork I’m sure is mostly responsible.Nurses don’t have the time to spend with the patient. I’m so glad to have trained at a nursing school where we had hands on hospital training as students.It was a three year,associate degree program but it was a great education.

  • Ruth Ann Golden

    Read your article in the Scranton Times Tribune and couldn’t agree with you more.Having been in the nursing profession for 30+ years I’ve seen a change in attitude,technique and personal appearance in the nursing professionals.Most likely modern technology and increased amount of paperwork is greatly responsible for this.Nurses don’t have the time to spend with the patient. I’m so glad I trained at a nursing school that provided me hands on hospital training.It was a three year associate degree program,but what a great education.

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