Something deadlier than Ebola, already in your hospital

Ebola has been called "the scariest virus" in existence, and for good reason. As described in the 1994 book "The Hot Zone," by Richard Preston (which I read, with horror, more than a decade ago), Ebola attacks its victims like no other known virus.

In the first chapter, which Stephen King called "one of the most horrifying things I've read in my whole life — and then it gets worse," Preston describes the virus' attack in one of its first victims, a man named Charles Monet:

"Monet maintains silence, waiting to receive attention. Suddenly he goes into the last phase. The human virus bomb explodes. Military biohazard specialists have ways of describing this occurrence. They say that the victim has "crashed and bled out". Or more politely they say that the victim has "gone down". He becomes dizzy and utterly weak, and his spine goes limp and nerveless and he loses all sense of balance. The room is turning around and around. He is going into shock. He leans over, head on his knees, and brings up an incredible quantity of blood from his stomach and spills it onto the floor with a gasping groan. He loses consciousness and pitches forward onto the floor. The only sound is a choking in his throat as he continues to vomit while unconscious. Then come a sound like bedside being torn in half, which is the sound of his bowels opening and venting blood from sloughed his gut. The linings of his intestines have come off and are being expelled along with huge amount of blood. Monet has crashed and is bleeding out."

Ebola attacks its victims quickly. Symptoms, such as fever, weakness, diarrhea and vomiting, generally occur 8-10 days after exposure. Most patients recover or pass away within 6-10 days of symptoms appearing.   

While Ebola attacks its victims in a horrific manner, it's important to remember that it's a relatively rare virus. Since its was discovered during two simultaneous outbreaks, in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1976, there have been 25 separate Ebola outbreak incidents, all in Africa, totaling 2,621 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
No doubt the severity of the virus' impact on the human body is one reason for such world-wide interest in its outbreaks, along with fear that the virus could spread outside Africa.

News of Ebola is on every network and newspaper I've read over the last few weeks, and rightfully so — the story is of great public health interest, but as I watch and read the numerous reports on the virus, I can't help but think that there's something much deadlier than Ebola affecting American hospitals everyday: medical errors.

While medical errors don't have a death rate anywhere near Ebola's 70-90 percent, in volume, they are deadlier than the scariest virus on earth.

I know I choose a bit of a hyperbolic headline for this article, but in actuality, the headline isn't hyperbolic at all. More patients die from medical errors each year, than have ever died from Ebola.

The oft-cited 1999 Institute of Medicine "To Err is Human" report on medical errors estimated as many as 98,000 patients die each year in U.S. hospitals due to preventable medical errors.

A more recent study, from 2013, found U.S. hospital patients who die from medical errors each year could be up to 4.5 times higher than the IOM report, at up to 440,000 deaths per year, when taking unreported errors into account.

So, from 1976 to 2014, 2,621 people have died from Ebola. In the same time span, 1.67 million (on the conservative end) to 16.87 million Americans have died by preventable errors caused by healthcare providers.

Medical errors don't invoke the same fear as Ebola, and they certainly don't get the same media attention, but they are just as scary, and just as concerning. I can't help but wonder if the industry worked as tirelessly at preventing errors as it has at preventing and treating Ebola, that medical errors could become much less common.

For now, though, I remain more scared of medical errors. After all, it's an error, not Ebola, that's most likely to affect me, or someone I love.  



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