Death by Medicine
Figures lie and liars figure
by Michael Braunstein
On January 11, 2012, the national Center for Disease Control published its National Vital Statistics Report, Volume 60, Number 4. It’s the annual list of what kills Americans. This year’s tally was notable to the mainstream media because homicide dropped out of the top 15 as a cause of death in the good ol’ USA.
Now one might think that the CDC is performing a tremendous public service by telling how fraught life in America is and the things we should be on guard for if we want to stay alive. However, the CDC fails to warn us about some of the most dangerous threats to our health: modern medicine and the drugs it prescribes.
THE CURE THAT KILLS
In reporting causes for death in America, CDC commits a major oversight. It is a government agency presumably chartered with protecting and informing the public about health hazards. Certainly it’s important for the CDC to caution the public about heart disease and cancer, primarily lifestyle-caused afflictions. But overlooking medical errors, treatments and prescription drugs as majors causes of death does a considerable disservice to the American consumer and taxpayer.
We are often comforted by the presumption that Western medicine can “save” us from sickness; that if we experience some health challenge that our American medical system will come to our rescue with some miracle cure or easy antidote. A sniffle, an ache or simply following the advice of a television ad and we run off to the doctor in search of wellness. Well, wellness isn’t where Americans search for it. American medicine kills people and it’s a closely guarded secret.
Long gone is the time when we would hear a politician or public advocate utter the words, “America has the best healthcare system in the world.” Yes, they actually used to claim that! And it wasn’t all that far in the distant past. But it was before so much indisputable evidence came raining down, placing the United States medical system under fire and at the bottom of the barrel of industrialized nations. Statistics show that our healthcare spending is solidly at the top but our healthcare outcomes are entrenched down at the bottom of the list. A World Health Organization study put the U.S. at 37th, behind Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the cocaine capital of the world, Colombia. It’s not bad enough that we do such a terrible job healing people. Worse, our system kills people at an astonishing rate.
Before any panties get wadded up, let’s acknowledge that there are some admirable, even heroic, people in America’s healthcare industry. The doctors and nurses who work tirelessly to succor the sick are saintly. And there are a few amazing technological advances that work sometimes. But in most areas associated with conventional medicine, the system is to blame and it’s the system that has failed us.
LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
The engine behind the failure of American medicine is greed. The techno-pharmaceutical industry and the political and administrative pawns that bow to its payroll are the real culprits. But what’s needed to stimulate change and to encourage abandoning the “cut/burn/poison” philosophy of American medicine that opts first for surgery/radiation therapy/drugs for most illnesses or medical conditions is a true awareness of the numbers.
The report this past week from the CDC released figures illustrating what they say are the leading causes of death in the United States. Glaringly absent from that list is any apparent heading blaming pharmaceutical drugs or adverse medical events for any American death.
Of course, at the top of the list is heart disease, implicated in about 600,000 mortalities in 2010. Following closely are the expected causes: cancers, lung disease, cerebral vascular events like stroke and at number five, accidents. Alzheimer’s is at number six, attributed with 83,000 deaths. But where do we see the estimated 106,000 Americans who are killed by prescription or over-the-counter drug use? And that number is for those who were properly prescribed and administered, not mistakes or overdoses.
Hiding in plain sight. Reports over the past two decades have clearly found that medical errors, hospital care and prescription drug-related events kill Americans in numbers upwards of hundreds of thousands. An Institute of Medicine report as far back as 1999 calculated that up to 98,000 people die in hospitals each year from avoidable medical errors. Meanwhile, another report about the same time, and supported by following studies, found that 106,000 people die yearly from properly prescribed prescription drugs. There is no mention of any such categories in the 68-page CDC report from last week.
The Food and Drug Administration’s own reporting system, Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS), paints a clear picture. In 2010, 82,724 people died following adverse events related to FDA-approved devices or drugs. These events can be describes as “Oops. Didn’t expect that to happen.”
Incidentally, the trend is disconcerting. The same reporting system documented “only” 19,445 deaths reported in 2000. We’ve gone from that to over 82 thousand in just ten years. Some of this gain may be attributed to more conscientious reporting by the medical fraternity. Reporting on adverse events is, unbelievably, voluntary.
Why aren’t these thousands of deaths on the list?
The numbers reported by the Institute of Medicine and the FDA are just the tip of the iceberg. In a well-documented report from 2003 titled “Death by Medicine,” a group of writers cited existing studies and came up with a number approaching 800,000 fatalities annually related to modern medical practices. The subcategories breakdown in numbers that would all land in the top 15 on the CDC’s list. A separate report found that over 103,000 people die each year due to hospital-acquired infections. That stat is glaringly missing from the CDC top-15.
In order to fix a problem, we must first be aware that there is one. When it comes to adverse, unintentional results of modern medicine, we have a problem. Is avoiding modern medicine the solution?