A Surgeon Outs the Deficiencies in Health Care

If only Dr. Marty Makary could be everybody’s doctor. He’s a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and associate professor of Health Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Unlike many of his fellow professionals, he’s vocal about the deficiencies in the delivery of health care, and openly discusses the problems of medical malpractice.

Makary led the effort of the World Health Organization (WHO) to measure hospital complications and co-developed the life-saving checklist for surgeons that’s become best practice to reduce infection and mistakes and to improve patient outcomes. As author of “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Healthcare,” he’s often quoted about medical error, and his informed opinions widely reproduced.

We think highly of his work, and are sharing some excerpts from his book. Our selections come from a long story recently published on The Daily Beast.com/Newsweek, but he’s been widely quoted in other media, including The Wall Street Journal.

On Overtesting and Overdiagnosing “A host of new studies examining the current state of health care indicates that approximately one in every five medications, tests, and procedures is likely unnecessary. What other industry misses the mark that often? Others put that number even higher. Harvey Fineberg, M.D., president of the Institute of Medicine and former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, has said that between 30 percent and 40 percent of our entire health-care expenditure is paying for fraud and unnecessary treatment.”

“Politicians debate different ways to pay for our broken system. But if we are going to get serious about reducing health-care costs-and improving health-care outcomes-we need to address the 20 percent of medical care that is unnecessary and dangerous. The public should demand disclosure of a hospital’s patient-outcome statistics. After all, we have information on a car’s safety record to inform our decision about which car to buy. But when it comes to choosing medical care, the consumer is left to walk in blind. While we currently have a free market for health care, the competition is at the wrong level. Many patients tell me they choose their medical care based on parking. For an industry that represents one sixth of the U.S. economy, we can do better than that.”

See our blog, “Overtested, Overtreated, Overcharged.”

On Hospital Competency “While patients are encouraged to think that the health-care system is competent and wise, it’s actually more like the Wild West. The shocking truth is that some prestigious hospitals participating in a national collaborative to measure surgical complications have four to five times more complications as other hospitals. And even within good hospitals, there are pockets of poorly performing services.”

“The wide disparity in the quality of medical care is no secret among hospital staff. In a study I conducted in 2006, we asked hospital employees, ‘Would you feel comfortable receiving medical care in the unit in which you work?’ While there were hospitals where 99 percent said yes, at more than half of the hospitals we surveyed, the majority of health-care workers said no. And to the question of whether their hospital gives priority to what’s best for the patient, again, in more than half of the hospitals surveyed, the majority of health-care workers said no.

“In other words, everyone who works in medicine knows about this problem but few talk about it. A cardiovascular anesthesiologist once described to me a colleague who was one of four heart surgeons at his well-known heart hospital. This surgeon had six consecutive deaths during routine bypass surgery. Half the operations of his last 10 surviving patients took several hours longer than the norm, often requiring the patient to be put back on the heart-lung bypass machine after having come off it. I asked my friend if he ever thought about reporting this surgeon to someone. He laughed and asked, “Like who?” The hospital administration loved this young doctor and was making a mint off his work. The senior partners were very protective of him-he covered their holiday shifts and happily tended to whatever the senior surgeons did not like to do. Whenever one of his complications was discussed at a peer-review conference, they cut him tremendous slack, attributing the death to some extenuating patient circumstance.”

See our blog, “An Insider Dishes About Hospital Ratings.”

On Hospital Transparency “A new generation of doctors has been developing fair and simple ways to measure how well patients do at individual hospitals. In hospital-speak, we call the information “sensitive data”-data that would tell you which hospitals have much worse outcomes than others.

“It’s the kind of data that, if you had access to it, would help you know just where to find the best care. But you don’t. And that is precisely the problem with the entire system: because a hospital’s outcomes are hidden from the public, neither consumers nor payers have any way of measuring whether the medicine they provide is good, adequate, or even safe. Much as the financial crisis was incubated when bank executives turned a blind eye to the ugly details about their mortgage-backed securities, so too does medicine’s lack of accountability create an institutional culture that results in overtreatment, increased risk, and runaway costs.”

See our blog, “Rating Hospitals by Readmission Is Not Simple.”

On Dangerous Doctors “Years ago, one of my favorite public-health professors, Harvard surgeon Dr. Lucian Leape, opened the keynote speech at a national surgeons’ conference by asking the thousands of doctors there to ‘raise your hand if you know of a physician you work with who should not be practicing because he or she is too dangerous.’ Every hand went up. Doing the math, I figured that each one of these dangerous doctors probably sees hundreds of patients each year, which would put the total number of patients who encounter the dangerous doctors known to this audience alone in the hundreds of thousands. If, say, only 2 percent of the nation’s 1 million doctors are seriously impaired or fraudulent (and most experts agree that 2 percent is a low estimate), that would mean 20,000 impaired or fraudulent doctors are practicing medicine. If each one of these doctors typically sees 500 patients each year, then 10 million people are seeing impaired or fraudulent doctors annually. Incredulous at the numbers, I took to asking the same question whenever I spoke at conferences. And the response was always the same.”

“[T]he National Practitioner Data Bank collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services … is also known as the national “blacklist” of doctors. The public has absolutely no access to it. When I requested the list, I was given a version with the doctors’ names deleted; the only groups that can query the list are state medical boards or human-resources departments doing background checks. Ironically, sex offenders’ names are broadcast to the community when they move into town, but doctors who lose their license in one state because of sexual misconduct with a patient are shielded by name in the database if their license is later restored or if they continue to practice medicine in another state.”

See our blog, “Minnesota Tells Dangerous Doctors: We Won’t Punish You.”

On Preventable Medical Errors A 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study concluded that as many as 25 percent of all hospitalized patients will experience a preventable medical error of some kind, and 100,000 will die annually because of errors. If medical error were a disease, it would be the sixth-leading cause of death in the country. My research partner lost his father due to a medical error. My medical partner lost his younger sister due to a medication error. My best friend’s mom had her breast removed unnecessarily because she was mistakenly told she had stage-III breast cancer. My grandfather died at age 60 from a preventable infection following a surgery he didn’t need. Andy Warhol died prematurely of a mistreated gallstone at 54; “Saturday Night Live’s” Dana Carvey had open-heart bypass surgery on the wrong vessel; and the singer Kanye West’s mother recently went to a surgery center for a routine plastic surgery, developed a rare complication, and died.”

See our blog, “Medical Mistakes That Led to a Greater Good.”

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