I’m currently reading a very interesting book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz. (I confess it’s overdue at the library. To Holly, my favorite librarian: I’m sorry–I’ll have it back soon!) There’s a lot of good discussion about the unproductive relationship we have with being wrong–we hate it: we deny it when it happens, and we don’t learn from our mistakes because we’re so busy refusing to admit them. In short, we’re even wrong about the way to be wrong, a meta-problem if ever there was one. I’m mulling over how to get better at being wrong; I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice. While I’m working on that, I wanted to highlight one category of wrongness that is particularly alarming, and which should strike fear into the heart of anyone who cannot guarantee to remain in perpetually perfect health–in short, everyone.
Chapter 14 begins with the story of a woman who went in for some sort of surgery at one of the top hospitals in the United States. When she awoke in the recovery room, she was confused to realize that she had bandages on the wrong side of her body. Whatever it was the surgeons were to do, they had apparently done it in the wrong place.
As our eyes widen with that prospect to consider, we’re next confronted with numbers to make the head spin. Based on statistics from a report of the Institute of Medicine, the author makes some startling estimates of medical mistakes: there are between 690,000 and 748,000 medical errors annually in the US, and between 44,000 and 98,000 of them are fatal. (Schulz, p. 300)
This is when I began to think about the recent plane crashes. The author points out that even if you use the lower figures, medical errors rank as the eighth leading cause of death in the US. She says this: “For commercial aviation to take the same toll in the United States as medical errors do, a sold-out 747 would have to crash every three days, killing everyone on board.”
Let’s just pause for a minute to let that sink in.
As passengers on a commercial flight, there’s not a lot you or I as individuals can do to increase our chances of landing safely–it may be heretical to say it, but I don’t think those seat belts are likely to make a great deal of difference. On the other hand, I like to think that we can increase our chances of making it safely through encounters with the medical establishment. We tend to be intimidated by folks in white coats, but as it’s our well-being on the line, perhaps we can speak up and ask more questions.
El Guapo had knee surgery a few years ago to repair a torn meniscus (he was playing Marcellus in Music Man, and had a lot of dancing to do). Before they administered anesthesia, someone pulled out a permanent marker and wrote on the knee that was going under the knife. I assume that something like that is standard operating procedure in the wake of errors like the one described earlier. I’m inclined to think that as part of a pre-op discussion, it makes sense to ask what kinds of safeguards are in place to prevent medical errors. And then maybe you’d want to avail yourself of one of those markers, so that before you go under, you could write your own message: “Hey, guys–over here.”