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Medical Errors in Perspective

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

750 words, published 2012, updated Sep 9th, 2014
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. FUD about “toxins” is a great example. Unfortunately, it’s especially common for alternative medicine to spread FUD about their competition — physicians practicing “mainstream” or “allopathic” medicine.

Is medicine dangerous? Is alternative medicine safer?

Alternative medicine practitioners often point angrily and accusingly to medical error rates. They say that chiropractic, naturopathy and other alternative care is much safer than medicine. It’s true … 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 — guaranteed. Medicine is dangerous mainly because being in deep medical trouble is dangerous.

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 unethical, dangerous, misleading fear-mongering. Cars kill and hurt people too, and for pretty much the same reason: sure, it’s risky, but the benefits are apparently worth the risk, because almost everyone alive is willing to take their chances.

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. There’s plenty of room for improvement, of course — always — but it’s extremely foolish to sneer at it from the outside.

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

A personal example

Sneering at “Western” medicine really pisses me off, because the people who do it also often concede that, of course, you need a doctor when you’re badly injured or really sick. But then they carry right on insulting doctors — apparently oblivious to the fact that they’re still talking about the same professionals, who are apparently only worthy of respect when they are stitching you up. The rest of the time they are close-minded fools, apparently.

That hypocrisy is just awful.

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. Big, complex, fallible human institutions are the only way to create the kind of care that saved her spine and probably her life.

She started out spending 48 hours in the basement of a shabby, overwhelmed hospital in Vientiane, Laos. It was terrible, and her life hung in the balance, but it was better than nothing. Laos is poor and the hopistal didn’t have enough of anything, but they still stopped the bleeding and stabilized her spine. Then it was into an ambulance, across the border, and into a private Thai hospital that was clean and modern — where whole teams of earnest people got to work on her while I flew across the Pacific Ocean. She was one of the most injured people in that hospital. We watched patient after patient leave before she did. Even after a month of recovery, flying her home required a medical escort with a $20,000 bill.

Alternative medicine has nothing to offer that can even begin to compete with that.

Was the care perfect? Was “the system“ flawless? Was it risk-free? Good grief, of course not! But it was pretty dang good, and those doctors and nurses — from the poor hospital in Laos, to the Canadian surgeon who removed her titanium fixtures in Vancouver two years later — 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.

About Paul Ingraham

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.