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Medical Errors in Perspective

Medical error rates should not be used to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt

475 words, published 2012
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer, the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org, and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for sassy, skeptical, referenced analysis and a huge bibliography. I am a runner and ultimate player, and live in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. • full bioabout SaveYourself.ca

SHOW SUMMARY Medical error rates are certainly alarming, but please keep them in perspective: the stakes are high in medicine, and the scale of everything is huge. We should be cautious about criticizing that from the outside. It’s impossible for everything to go well when you’re trying to help huge numbers of very sick people.

I saw the acronym “FUD” many times before I finally paused to look it up: it means “fear, uncertainty and doubt,” which are often bundled together in marketing, public relations, and politics for the purposes of herding people away from something “scary” … and towards an alternative product or idea. Make them afraid … and then sell them a solution, either literally or figuratively. FUD is mostly disingenuous and has the stink of propaganda and extreme vested interest.

The idea of FUD explains a lot. Once I knew what it was, I started seeing it everywhere. Unfortunately, it is especially common for alternative medicine to spread FUD about their competition — “mainstream” medicine.

Is medicine dangerous? Is alternative medicine safer?

Alternative medicine practitioners often point accusingly to medical error rates, with the implication that chiropractic, naturopathy and other alternative care is much safer. That’s probably true … yes, in the sense that walking is much safer than driving, but also doesn’t get you as far. If you routinely had to treat huge numbers of people with life-threatening injuries and dire illness, your profession would have scary error rates, too.

There is no question that bad things happen in hospitals, and stats about iatrogenic (doctor-generated) medical errors can seem alarming. Medical systems deal with vastly greater numbers of much more serious cases than any chiropractor or naturopathHowever, to simply state that medicine kills and hurts people is misleading fear-mongering. Cars kill and hurt people too, and for pretty much the same reason: sure it’s risky, but the benefits are worth the risk, and huge numbers of people are willing to take that chance.

Medical systems deal with vastly greater numbers of much more serious cases than any chiropractor or naturopath, and many of them are no-win, rarely-win, or sometimes-lose situations with the highest stakes, terrible suffering and death. We should be cautious about criticizing that from the outside.

Try working in a hospital for a while, try to be perfect, try to never have anything go wrong that matters!

Ending on a personal note…

This issue means a great deal more to me after my wife’s survival of a terrible vehicle accident in 2010. With a major head injury and a badly crushed vertebra, she easily could have died or been paralyzed. There was nothing even remotely “safe” about fixing her, and vast and complex human systems were the only way to create the kind of care that saved her spine. Alternative medicine has nothing to offer that can even begin to compete with that.

Was the care perfect? Was “the system“ flawless? Good grief, of course not! But it was pretty dang good, and those doctors and nurses deserve far better than to be sneered at by alternative practitioners who have never once held someone’s life in their hands … let alone daily.