Though it’s not something most of us think about, we’ve all heard stories from time to time of doctors leaving medical equipment in patients and the alarming truth is that these instances are more prevalent than we realize.
A study, from doctors at Johns Hopkins suggests medical errors may kill more people than lower respiratory disease do, making these medical mistakes the third leading cause of death in the U.S falling behind cancer and heart disease. Studies indicate that there are at least 251,454 deaths from medical errors in the U.S. annually. Dr. Martin Makary and Dr. Michael Daniel, led a study on these medical errors, in the hopes that their analysis would lead to real change to what they determine to be a growing issue.
As it stands, the numbers are a bit nebulous as medical records have to correspond with insurance billing codes and there is no code that accounts for human error so these mistakes are not recorded. Makary suggests that there should be a space on the certificate that acknowledges human error and a practice in place that would legally protect doctors from a lawsuit. Doctors are human, they will make mistakes but it’s important to acknowledge that and then put a preventative system in place to ensure that it happens less.
He suggests barcodes placed on each piece of surgical equipment so that a team could account for every tool. But again, this would require investment in the scanning equipment and the training as to properly recording the data. The issue is many hospitals don’t invest in preventative technology because they don’t realize just how big the problem is.
Like any problem, the first step to finding a solution is to address it in the first place.
"There is a strong moral case for innovations in this area, but there isn't really a financial case for hospitals to improve this system the way it is," Makary said. Funding for research on medical errors is also extremely limited.
We’ve all heard the horror stories of people going in for routine procedures and needing to be rushed back to the hospital due to internal bleeding left from a surgical tool and never making it out. It’s awful but also makes you wonder how this can happen and part of it is that there is no current system in place to monitor or record this type of information. Everything from not having a system in place in the O.R to account for the tools, to accurately accounting for human error on a death certificate once this type of lethal mistake is made.
The issue isn’t just limited to the U.S either. Studies have shown that this is a growing problem around the world. “No matter the number, one incident is one too many," said Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association. The good news is that people want to tackle the problem, everyone from the hospitals to the doctors, to the nurses genuinely want to make sure that this never happens. It’s just a matter of creatively addressing the system in order to improve it.
"I think doctors and nurses and other medical professionals are the heroes of the patient safety movement and come up with creative innovations to fix the problems," says Makary. "But they need the support from the system to solve these problems and to help us help improve the quality of care."
One scrappy startup is seeking to fix this through a simplified tracking mechanism that reduces time and cost over barcode or NFC systems. They are still in the early stages and have not yet released their proprietary process but it’s obvious the problem is greater than the sum of its parts.
“My Grandmother died because she got an infection from a surgical tool left in her. That was 40 years ago and the problem still exists. It's time we set the egos aside in the medical industry and resolve this once and for all." Says Jonathan Calmus - Inventor of Gravitas, a surgical tool loss and theft prevention technology.
In what is a complex, bureaucratic system there isn’t one easy answer but it is comforting to know that there are companies out there advocating for patients and offering cost effective solutions that could make the difference between life or death.