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A Famous Doctor Ponders Lowering the Rate of Medical Mistakes

Dr. Sanjay Gupta has become a household name in the U.S. as the friendly physician on television who educates us about a wide range of medical topics. He is largely respected by the public and seen as an authoritative, yet approachable, professional figure.

The New York Times recently published a thoughtful editorial piece by Gupta in which he shares his thoughts about the prevention of medical mishaps. He estimates that there are probably about 200,000 annual fatalities nationally because of medical errors.

"Defensive medicine" is the performance of medical tests, procedures and treatment not because patients need them, but rather to shield physicians and medical facilities from potential legal liability. According to Gupta, U.S. doctors order many more defensive medical procedures than their counterparts abroad and the rate is climbing.

Ironically, notes Gupta, while defensive medicine is meant to prevent errors, every medical procedure can go wrong and carries the risk of dangerous side effects and complications. So, in effect, by trying to avoid liability, unnecessary harm to patients can be the result of this approach. "More ... is not always better."

In fact, less may often be better in this sometimes life-or-death context.

Doctors are human and in life there are no guarantees that mistakes will not happen, no matter how much care is taken. As a result, it is important to be proactive in preventing as much human error as possible in the healthcare context. Gupta describes many professional protocols that have been developed in the attempt to lessen the numbers of unnecessary medical mistakes.

For example, to help prevent surgical errors, the use of a "time out" before surgery begins gives the medical team a moment to confirm that the correct patient is on the table, that everyone understands the correct site of the surgery and that every proper preparation has been taken.

As patient advocates, physicians and celebrity doctors alike become increasingly concerned about medical error rates, hopefully more and more individual care providers and facilities will respond accordingly. However, when mistakes do occur and cause patients harm, they do have the right to hold their negligent care providers accountable.

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