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BALTIMORE — I guess I am a hopeless, naive Boy Scout.  That we have a problem in healthcare with a growing number of deaths — the result of preventable medical errors — makes me angry.  That my industry seems desensitized to this problem is more than just a little frustrating.


The stunning news that more than 440,000 patients die each year from preventable medical errors, according to a study released in the Journal of Patient Safety in 2013, created only a few ripples of news coverage and little comment in the healthcare trade journals.

In a recent keynote speech to a group of healthcare professionals, I made reference to this study.  Their response was underwhelming, prompting me to say that I was hoping for a little moral outrage.  When the blank stares continued, I referred to a quote attributed to the Russian butcher Joseph Stalin:

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic 

I feel compelled to ask if we are prepared to accept that our healthcare system — what many Americans consider the best healthcare system in the world — kills the equivalent of 3.2 jumbo airliners filled with people every day of every week of every month of every year? 

In the interest of disclosure, my mother, by this standard, is a mere statistic.  Someone forgot to raise the bed rail or turn on the alarm that was built into her very expensive bed.  During the early morning hours on the day of her scheduled discharge, she tried to get out of bed, fell and broke her hip.  Emergency surgery was scheduled; it occurred some 15 hours later.  My mother survived the operation but she never returned to her home.  She died in hospice some six weeks later after a short stay in a rehab hospital and a readmission to the acute care facility.  The nursing care to help her die was, ironically, superior to the nursing care she received as an inpatient.  

My mother’s story is not that unique.  Not surprisingly, for too many healthcare workers our tragedy was just one of those things.  I am not angry at the hospital’s administration.  They have worked hard to build a successful regional health system that strives to improve health care in rural communities.  Instead of a lawsuit, I just asked them to work a little harder to be sure that this sort of senseless oversight doesn’t result in the death of someone else’s mother.

The challenges healthcare leaders face over the next five to 10 years are daunting — healthcare reform and ongoing cuts to Medicare reimbursement that will force a transformation of the current healthcare business model — that bed rails and bed alarms seem almost insignificant. That is not a reassuring thought.  

A candidate for a Chief Medical Officer search we are conducting, shared the Stalin quote when I asked him, as an aside to our interview, why healthcare professionals are not morally outraged by the needless deaths.  He feels like it is due to a multiple of factors — being desensitized to this tragedy was chief among them.

We can do better: 440,000 deaths cannot, should not, be just a statistic.  But without moral outrage I fear that nothing will change except that the number of deaths from preventable errors will only increase.