Celebrities can play an out-sized role in medicine and health care: Just consider the public attention paid to Angela Jolie or Ben Stiller and their discussions about cancer screening and the disease’s risks, or Michael Phelps, Mariah Carey, and Carrie Fisher raising awareness about mental health issues, or, yes, Gwyneth Paltrow promoting a rash of wellness goop.
But even with their wealth, accomplishment, looks, and social standing, public figures also can be savaged just like ordinary folks by medical errors that harm and even kill them and their loved ones, according to the Center for Justice and Democracy.
The group has put out a study with 22 cases, documented by lawsuits and medical board sanctions, to show that, “Celebrity is no safeguard when it comes to medical malpractice,” Emily Gottlieb, the report’s author and the center’s deputy director for law and policy, said in a statement. “As this report illustrates, patients with fame and fortune are just as likely to be horrifically injured or killed by dangerous health providers as the general public.”
Gottlieb said the center’s list is not comprehensive, and, sadly, needs constant updating due to persistent injuries and deaths involving prominent patients and doctors and hospitals. The center’s roster reads like a list of stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, recalling cases including those of:
- Julie Andrews and how a “negligent throat procedure” halted the Oscar-winning actress’ singing career
- Dana Carvey and how a “negligent heart surgeon operated on the wrong artery,” causing serious illness and a prolonged recovery for the comedian
- Michael Jackson and how the King of Pop “died of a lethal dose of anesthesia administered by his doctor”
- Prince and how his “Purple Reign” atop music’s best-seller lists ended with his fatal fentanyl abuse after “health providers failed to properly diagnose and treat a prior opioid overdose”
- Joan Rivers and how the legendary comedienne died after “a New York endoscopy center subjected her to numerous unauthorized and unsafe procedures”
- Andy Warhol and how the pop artist and mover-and-shaker of Manhattan life died after “a gall bladder surgery when hospital personnel essentially drowned him with fluid”
Joanne Doroshow, the center’s executive director, said the group undertook and issued its celebrity study not to fuel star-driven ghoulishness but to underscore that, “the problem of medical negligence is so entrenched and universal that even wealthy celebrities who can afford most comforts in life are not immune from experiencing it.” Further, she added, “Given our celebrity-focused culture, this report might be the best way to catch and hold the public’s attention regarding the serious issue of medical negligence.”
Indeed, in my practice I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and how the mighty and meek can have havoc wreaked on them by bad doctors and hospitals committing medical errors. These kinds of mistakes claim the lives of roughly 685 Americans per day — more people than die of respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s. That estimate comes from a team of researchers led by a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. It means medical errors rank as the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease and cancer.
It’s unacceptable that celebrities, who get fawned over by doctors and hospitals and can afford intensive and individualized medical attention and care, still are subjected to medical error. That should give humbler patients with fewer resources great pause about accessing and affording safe, efficient, and excellent medical care.
And even though it may be painfully swift to find and point out how almost two dozen celebrities have been victims of medical malpractice, it’s also too sad and true that every day doctors and hospitals have harmed and killed too many less-known dads, moms, kids, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, and work colleagues. Negative public attention, professional reprimand, and action through the civil justice system provides some remedy and justice for the nightmares of medical malpractice. We’ve got a long way to go, however, to prevent it altogether — for all patients.