Medical Care: The Third Leading Cause of Death
Written By Michael Greger M.D. FACLM on November 10th, 2016
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but a pound isn’t that heavy. Why change our diet and lifestyle when we can just wait and let modern medicine fix us up? In my video The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs, I noted that patients tend to wildly overestimate the ability of cancer screening and cholesterol-lowering medications to prevent disease. Surveyed patients report that if they were told the truth about how little they’d benefit from taking drugs, such as cholesterol-lowering, blood pressure, and blood-thinning, every day for the rest of their lives, 90%said they wouldn’t even bother.
The reason we should eat healthier, rather than just counting on a medical technofix, is that we may hold this same overconfidence for treatment, too. In a massive study of more than 200,000 trials, researchers discovered that pills and procedures can certainly help, but genuine, very large effects with extensive support from substantial evidence appear to be rare in medicine. Further, large benefits for mortality—making people live significantly longer—are almost entirely nonexistent. Modern medicine is great for acute conditions—broken bones and curing infections—but for chronic disease, our leading causes of death and disability, we don’t have much to offer. In fact, we sometimes do more harm than good.
In my Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death presentation, I noted that side effects from prescription drugs kill an estimated 100,000 Americans every year, making medical care the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There are another 7,000 deaths from getting the wrong medicine by mistake and 20,000 deaths from other errors in hospitals. Hospitals are dangerous places. An additional 99,000 of us die from hospital-acquired infections. But can we really blame doctors for those deaths, though? We can when they don’t wash their hands.
We’ve known since the 1840’s that the best way to prevent hospital-acquired infections is through handwashing, yet compliance rates among healthcare workers rarely exceed 50%, and doctors are the worst, as highlighted in my video Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure. Even in a medical intensive care unit with a “contact precautions” sign, signaling a particularly high risk patient, less than a quarter of doctors were found to wash their hands. Many physicians greeted the horrendous mortality data due to medical error with disbelief and concern that the information would undermine public trust. But if doctors still won’t even wash their hands, how much trust do we deserve?
We could go in for a simple operation and come out with a life-threatening infection, or not come out at all. 12,000 more die from surgeries that were unnecessary in the first place. For those keeping score, that’s 225,000 people dead from iatrogenic (“relating to medical care”) causes. And that’s mostly just for patients in a hospital. In an outpatient setting, side effects from prescription drugs send millions to the hospital and result in perhaps 199,000 additional deaths. This is not including all those non-fatally injured (such as the case where doctors accidentally amputated the tip of a man’s penis. Oops).
These estimates are on the low end. The Institute of Medicine estimated that deaths from medical errors may kill up to 98,000 Americans. That would bump us up to 284,000 dead. Even if we use the lower estimate, the medical profession constitutes the third leading cause of death in the United States. It goes heart disease, cancer, then… me.
One respondent pointed out that it was misleading to call medicine the third leading cause of death since many of those we kill also had heart disease or cancer. It’s not like doctors are out there gunning down healthy people. Only people on medications are killed by medication errors or side effects. You have to be in the hospital to be killed by a hospital error.
To which I respond: Exactly.
That’s why lifestyle medicine is so important. The most common reasons people are on drugs and in hospitals is for diseases that can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle. The best way to avoid the adverse effects of medical care is to not get sick in the first place.
For more background on how scandalous our handwashing history has been, see my Q&A: What about Semmelweis and medicine’s shameful handwashing history? It’s truly an unbelievable story.
Michael Greger, M.D.