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Of errors and ennui

MagazineNovember 1993 (Vol. 4 Issue 8)Of errors and ennui

This month may have set a record for the number of extraordinary medical mistakes

This month may have set a record for the number of extraordinary medical mistakes.

Every day, it seemed, the headlines had more to contribute in its litany of professional disaster. A formerly infertile woman booked in for a hysterectomy is found to be pregnant and yet given an abortion without her knowledge, prompting a load of admissions by women also given hysterectomies without their consent.

Some 1100 cervical smear test recipients get misdiagnosed when a woman uses tongue depressors, rather than the usual spatulas designed to remove cells from the neck of the womb.

In Birmingham, nearly 2000 patients are misdiagnosed as having cancer and given treatment that may increase their chances of truly developing the disease.

New evidence emerges about hormones containing Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease in fertility treatments given to women, soon after the Independent trumpets a story (long in the medical press) about patients given growth hormone contaminated with CJD.

In between these big breaking stories we've had your everyday revelations, given little more than a few column inches, that surgical patients are dying from bad care in hospital (see p 4); complaints against GPs have tripled since 1977; half of all junior doctors admit to major mistakes in giving intravenous drugs; drug prescriptions have gone up by 30 per cent in seven years; and 13,000 British lives are lost a year because intensive care patients aren't monitored properly.

And that's only what I've read in my morning paper, not the medical press or that of any other country.

What on earth is going on here? By any standards, this is a comprehensive catalogue of industry incompetence. If this were any other industry, we would have witnessed a huge public outcry.

Even the newspapers demonstrate a sort of ennui when reporting medical boo boos, giving priority to an "upbeat" medical breakthrough like operating on fetuses outside the womb.

I suspect that this double standard points up just how cowardly we all are about medical authority. Because our GPs work long and hard, we're willing to forgive them for everything, even when people die.

In response, the Department of Health has recently announced that it supports plans for regular independent checks on doctor incompetence. A conference is going to be held, and probably some meaningful discussion, and everyone will assume the problem has been dealt with.

But the newspapers or government will take medical incompetence seriously only when enough people make a stink about it, writing in and demanding something better. We've all got to write to the government or the press. When you set pen to paper, work yourself into a lather. Imagine for a minute that the trains don't run on time.


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