Jumping out of a Plane More Than 47 Times Safer Than Checking into a Hospital. Unless…

But when it comes to counting fatal mistakes – medical errors causing hospital deaths by human or equipment error – I find the math more startling.

I saw several news stories recently reporting that flying in an airplane is safer than being admitted to a hospital. True. But not all that shocking. After all, plane travel is pretty safe, and you have to be pretty sick to be admitted to a hospital.

But when it comes to counting fatal mistakes – hospital deaths caused by human or equipment error – I find the math more startling. According to the World Health Organization, about 1 in 10 people admitted to a hospital is harmed by a medical error, and about 1 in 300 of those harmed dies from the mistake, for a fatal mistake rate of 1 in 3000. This means that 99.97% of those admitted avoid fatal mistakes. Good news, perhaps, but not nearly good enough.

Taking a Leap

By contrast, the United States Parachute Association reports that in 2010 the death rate was only 1 per 142,857 jumps from an airplane. By my calculations this is more than 47 times safer than hospitalization when it comes to human or equipment errors.

The Silver Lining

The silver lining of the hospital too-high death rate is that these are preventable errors. Here are my top tips:

  1. When possible, choose a hospital rated highly for patient safety. Here’s a list of the Safest Hospitals in the United States, created by the Leapfrog Group.*
  2. Ask questions. If a question occurs to you, ask. If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask for an explanation. As reported on e-patients.net, we ask the waiter about side dishes, but don’t ask the doctor about side effects! Questions are the answer.
  3. Speak up. If something doesn’t seem right to you, say something. For example, if someone is about to examine your child and you haven’t seen them wash their hands, say something – the unnecessary spread of infections in hospitals is one of the biggest preventable causes of harm.

I recently read an advance copy of Joe and Terry Graedon’s* soon-to-be released book, Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them. It’s the best guide I’ve seen yet for stopping these mistakes before they happen. This could be one of the most important books you will ever read if you or a loved one will be dealing with doctors, hospitals or prescription medications — or if you’re a doctor yourself.

Everyone makes mistakes. Working together can be one of the best ways to prevent errors, which is one of the reasons I believe the Society for Participatory Medicine (and its blog) to be so important. As I’ve said before, consider the power of collaboration and personal responsibility to achieve health. Healthcare is a team sport and a solo flight, a wave and a particle.

*Thanks, Paul Sharek, MD, for making Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University a leading pioneer in patient safety.

* Joe and Terry Graedon are our newest editors at the Journal of Participatory Medicine.

WHO Patient Safety Information Centre. http://www.who.int/patientsafety/information_centre/en/ Accessed 7/27/2011

Reuters. Going into a Hospital Far Riskier than Flying:WHO. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/21/us-safety-idUSTRE76K45R20110721 Accessed 7/27/2011

USPA. About Skydiving> Skydiving safety http://www.uspa.org/AboutSkydiving/SkydivingSafety/tabid/526/Default.aspx Accessed 7/27/2011

WHO Patient Safety Research. 2009. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2009/WHO_IER_PSP_2009.10_eng.pdf Accessed 7/27/2011

Published on: July 27, 2011
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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