By Ralph Nader
Solid studies by physicians at leading medical schools have been warning of the huge casualty toll that flows from preventable problems in hospitals. A 2016 peer-reviewed study by physicians at the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine estimated that at least 5,000 people a week in the U.S. lose their lives due to such causes as hospital-induced infection, medical malpractice, inattentiveness, and other deficiencies. Media attention lasted one day.
What will it take to make the powers-that-be outside and inside the government reduce what medical analysts call the third leading cause of death in America? Let that statement sink in—preventable problems in hospitals are the third leading cause of death in America after heart disease and cancer!
Indignation and frustration over the massive avoidance of action to save American lives and reduce even more preventable injuries and sicknesses prompted the issuance of an eye-opening, factual report by the Center for Justice and Democracy (lodged at New York Law School) titled “Top 22 Celebrities Harmed by Medical Malpractice.” Surely in a celebrity culture, this documented report should have made headlines and prompted widespread commentary. Unfortunately, the report received little coverage from major news outlets.
Let’s see if you agree that this compilation, written by Emily Gottlieb and conceived by Joanne Doroshow, the Center’s Director, should have been newsworthy. Surveys cited in the Report show that “Four in 10 adults have experience with medical errors, either personally or in the care of someone close to them.” “Nearly three-quarters [73 percent] of patients say they are concerned about the potential for medical errors.”
Count tennis superstar, Serena Williams, was among them. She had to save her own life overcoming inattentive medical personnel “that initially dismissed her legitimate concerns about lethal blood clots following the birth of her child.” That story made news. Other celebrities passed away without the public knowing the causes until lawsuits were filed and settlements were rendered. For the most part, the physicians have received reprimands, temporary suspensions, but rarely lost their license to practice.
Joan Rivers, the long-time comedian, entered an endoscopy center in July 2014 for a routine throat procedure in New York. Her vital signs started failing, but her caretakers were “so busy taking cell phone pictures of their famous patient that they missed the moment her vital signs plummeted,” according to her daughter Melissa who filed a successful lawsuit ending in a private settlement.
Celebrity doctors who “cater to ‘the demands of wealthy and/or famous drug-seekers’” are overprescribing pain killers and other drugs. Reckless practices “led to the premature deaths of legendary entertainers like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, to name just three.” More recently, over-prescription of drugs has harmed or killed Michael Jackson , Prince, Anna Nicole Smith, and 3 Doors Down guitarist Matt Roberts, to name a few. These were not one-time prescriptions but rather deadly ministrations over time by physicians who knew the conditions and vulnerabilities of their famous patients.
Other tragedies recounted in the Center’s report, based on lawsuit evidence and/or a medical board sanction, include singer Julie Andrews (destroyed her singing career); Marty Balin, Jefferson Airplane’s co-founder and lead-singer (destroyed his career); comedian Dana Carvey (led to “serious illness”); Maurice Gibb, the Bee Gees’ star (“died in a Florida hospital”); NASCAR champion, Pete Hamilton (survived “horrendous surgical errors causing… multiple complications”); and John Ritter, the Emmy award-winning actor, was “misdiagnosed and improperly treated at a hospital where he died.”
The great sports writer, Dick Schaap died after routine hip replacement surgery, when contemporary tests showed his weakened lungs indicated that the procedure would be too dangerous.
In 1987, the pioneering artist, director, and producer, Andy Warhol, underwent gallbladder surgery and died a day later when medical personnel put too much fluid intravenously into his body.
The Center’s report concludes by noting that “health care in the United States can be incredibly unsafe, and this is true even for well-known actors, singers, musicians, athletes and other personalities …wealth and fame cannot shield someone from being victimized by a preventable medical error.”
Safety and health reforms are long overdue in hospitals and clinics astonishingly. The American Medical Association has not produced any calls to action with effective recommendations. State regulators are heavily compromised by conflicts of interest and low budgets. The federal government is AWOL. A minimum of 5,000 lives lost a week, not counting the casualties in clinics and medical offices is a serious health crisis. This ongoing epidemic should lead to public alarms and reforms long known but kept on the shelf. Contact your members of Congress and demand public hearings. The evidence cannot be ignored any longer.