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Life Extension Magazine

Death by Medicine

By Gary Null, PhD; Carolyn Dean MD, ND; Martin Feldman, MD; Debora Rasio, MD; and Dorothy Smith, PhD

Cesarean Section

In 1983, 809,000 cesarean sections (21% of live births) were performed in the US, making it the nation's most common obstetric-gynecologic (OB/GYN) surgical procedure. The second most common OB/GYN operation was hysterectomy (673,000), followed by diagnostic dilation and curettage of the uterus (632,000). In 1983, OB/GYN procedures represented 23% of all surgery completed in the US.(104)

In 2001, cesarean section is still the most common OB/GYN surgical procedure. Approximately 4 million births occur annually, with 24% (960,000) delivered by cesarean section. In the Netherlands, only 8% of births are delivered by cesarean section. This suggests 640,000 unnecessary cesarean sections—entailing three to four times higher mortality and 20 times greater morbidity than vaginal delivery(105)—are performed annually in the US.

The US cesarean rate rose from just 4.5% in 1965 to 24.1% in 1986. Sakala contends that an “uncontrolled pandemic of medically unnecessary cesarean births is occurring.”(106) VanHam reported a cesarean section postpartum hemorrhage rate of 7%, a hematoma formation rate of 3.5%, a urinary tract infection rate of 3%, and a combined postoperative morbidity rate of 35.7% in a high-risk population undergoing cesarean section.(107)

NEVER ENOUGH STUDIES

Scientists claimed there were never enough studies revealing the dangers of DDT and other dangerous pesticides to ban them. They also used this argument for tobacco, claiming that more studies were needed before they could be certain that tobacco really caused lung cancer. Even the American Medical Association (AMA) was complicit in suppressing the results of tobacco research. In 1964, when the Surgeon General's report condemned smoking, the AMA refused to endorse it, claiming a need for more research. What they really wanted was more money, which they received from a consortium of tobacco companies that paid the AMA $18 million over the next nine years during which the AMA said nothing about the dangers of smoking.(108)

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), "after careful consideration of the extent to which cigarettes were used by physicians in practice," began accepting tobacco advertisements and money in 1933. State journals such as the New York State Journal of Medicine also began to run advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes that claimed cigarettes are "Just as pure as the water you drink… and practically untouched by human hands." In 1948, JAMA argued "more can be said in behalf of smoking as a form of escape from tension than against it… there does not seem to be any preponderance of evidence that would indicate the abolition of the use of tobacco as a substance contrary to the public health."(109) Today, scientists continue to use the excuse that more studies are needed before they will support restricting the inordinate use of drugs.

ADVERSE DRUG REACTIONS

The Lazarou study(1) analyzed records for prescribed medications for 33 million US hospital admissions in 1994. It discovered 2.2 million serious injuries due to prescribed drugs; 2.1% of inpatients experienced a serious adverse drug reaction, 4.7% of all hospital admissions were due to a serious adverse drug reaction, and fatal adverse drug reactions occurred in 0.19% of inpatients and 0.13% of admissions. The authors estimated that 106,000 deaths occur annually due to adverse drug reactions.

Using a cost analysis from a 2000 study in which the increase in hospitalization costs per patient suffering an adverse drug reaction was $5,483, costs for the Lazarou study's 2.2 million patients with serious drug reactions amounted to $12 billion.(1,49)

Serious adverse drug reactions commonly emerge after FDA approval of the drugs involved. The safety of new agents cannot be known with certainty until a drug has been on the market for many years.(110)

BEDSORES

Over one million people develop bedsores in U.S. hospitals every year. It's a tremendous burden to patients and family, and a $55 billion dollar healthcare burden. (7) Bedsores are preventable with proper nursing care. It is true that 50% of those affected are in a vulnerable age group of over 70. In the elderly bedsores carry a fourfold increase in the rate of death. The mortality rate in hospitals for patients with bedsores is between 23% and 37%. (8) Even if we just take the 50% of people over 70 with bedsores and the lowest mortality at 23%, that gives us a death rate due to bedsores of 115,000. Critics will say that it was the disease or advanced age that killed the patient, not the bedsore, but our argument is that an early death, by denying proper care, deserves to be counted. It is only after counting these unnecessary deaths that we can then turn our attention to fixing the problem.

MALNUTRITION IN NURSING HOMES

The General Accounting Office (GAO), a special investigative branch of Congress, cited 20% of the nation's 17,000 nursing homes for violations between July 2000 and January 2002. Many violations involved serious physical injury and death.(111)

A report from the Coalition for Nursing Home Reform states that at least one-third of the nation's 1.6 million nursing home residents may suffer from malnutrition and dehydration, which hastens their death. The report calls for adequate nursing staff to help feed patients who are not able to manage a food tray by themselves.(11) It is difficult to place a mortality rate on malnutrition and dehydration. The Coalition report states that malnourished residents, compared with well-nourished hospitalized nursing home residents, have a fivefold increase in mortality when they are admitted to a hospital. Multiplying the one-third of 1.6 million nursing home residents who are malnourished by a mortality rate of 20%(8,14) results in 108,800 premature deaths due to malnutrition in nursing homes.

Nosocomial Infections

The rate of nosocomial infections per 1,000 patient days rose from 7.2 in 1975 to 9.8 in 1995, a 36% jump in 20 years. Reports from more than 270 US hospitals showed that the nosocomial infection rate itself had remained stable over the previous 20 years, with approximately five to six hospital-acquired infections occurring per 100 admissions, a rate of 5-6%. Due to progressively shorter inpatient stays and the increasing number of admissions, however, the number of infections increased. It is estimated that in 1995, nosocomial infections cost $4.5 billion and contributed to more than 88,000 deaths, or one death every 6 minutes.(9) The 2003 incidence of nosocomial mortality is quite probably higher than in 1995 because of the tremendous increase in antibiotic-resistant organisms. Morbidity and Mortality Report found that nosocomial infections cost $5 billion annually in 1999,(10) representing a $0.5 billion increase in just four years. At this rate of increase, the current cost of nosocomial infections would be around $5.5 billion.

Outpatient Iatrogenesis

In a 2000 JAMA article, Dr. Barbara Starfield presents well-documented facts that are both shocking and unassailable.(12) The U.S. ranks 12th of 13 industrialized countries when judged by 16 health status indicators. Japan, Sweden, and Canada were first, second, and third, respectively. More than 40 million people in the US have no health insurance, and 20-30% of patients receive contraindicated care.

Starfield warns that one cause of medical mistakes is overuse of technology, which may create a "cascade effect" leading to still more treatment. She urges the use of ICD (International Classification of Diseases) codes that have designations such as "Drugs, Medicinal, and Biological Substances Causing Adverse Effects in Therapeutic Use" and "Complications of Surgical and Medical Care" to help doctors quantify and recognize the magnitude of the medical error problem. Starfield notes that many deaths attributable to medical error today are likely to be coded to indicate some other cause of death. She concludes that against the backdrop of our poor health report card compared to other Westernized countries, we should recognize that the harmful effects of health care interventions account for a substantial proportion of our excess deaths.

Starfield cites Weingart's 2000 article, “Epidemiology of Medical Error,” as well as other authors to suggest that between 4% and 18% of consecutive patients in outpatient settings suffer an iatrogenic event leading to:

  1. 116 million extra physician visits
  2. 77 million extra prescriptions filled
  3. 17 million emergency department visits
  4. 8 million hospitalizations
  5. 3 million long-term admissions
  6. 199,000 additional deaths
  7. $77 billion in extra costs(112)

Unnecessary Surgeries

While some 12,000 deaths occur each year from unnecessary surgeries, results from the few studies that have measured unnecessary surgery directly indicate that for some highly controversial operations, the proportion of unwarranted surgeries could be as high as 30%.(74)

MEDICAL ERRORS: A GLOBAL ISSUE

A five-country survey published in the Journal of Health Affairs found that 18-28% of people who were recently ill had suffered from a medical or drug error in the previous two years. The study surveyed 750 recently ill adults. The breakdown by country showed the percentages of those suffering a medical or drug error were 18% in Britain, 23% in Australia and in New Zealand, 25% in Canada, and 28% in the US.(113)

HEALTH INSURANCE

The Institute of Medicine recently found that the 41 million Americans with no health insurance have consistently worse clinical outcomes than those who are insured, and are at increased risk for dying prematurely (114).

When doctors bill for services they do not render, advise unnecessary tests, or screen everyone for a rare condition, they are committing insurance fraud. The US GAO estimated that $12 billion dollars was lost to fraudulent or unnecessary claims in 1998, and reclaimed $480 million in judgments in that year. In 2001, the federal government won or negotiated more than $1.7 billion in judgments, settlements, and administrative impositions in health care fraud cases and proceedings.(115)

WAREHOUSING OUR ELDERS

One way to measure the moral and ethical fiber of a society is by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. In some cultures, elderly people lives out their lives in extended family settings that enable them to continue participating in family and community affairs. American nursing homes, where millions of our elders go to live out their final days, represent the pinnacle of social isolation and medical abuse.

  • In America, approximately 1.6 million elderly are confined to nursing homes. By 2050, that number could be 6.6 million.(11,116)
  • Twenty percent of all deaths from all causes occur in nursing homes.(117)
  • Hip fractures are the single greatest reason for nursing home admissions.(118)
  • Nursing homes represent a reservoir for drug-resistant organisms due to overuse of antibiotics.(119)

Presenting a report he sponsored entitled "Abuse of Residents is a Major Problem in U.S. Nursing Homes" on July 30, 2001, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) noted that “as a society we will be judged by how we treat the elderly." The report found one-third of the nation's approximately 17,000 nursing homes were cited for an abuse violation in a two-year period from January 1999 to January 2001.(116) According to Waxman, “the people who cared for us deserve better." The report suggests that this known abuse represents only the “tip of the iceberg” and that much more abuse occurs that we aware of or ignore.(116a) The report found:

  • Over 30% of US nursing homes were cited for abuses, totaling more than 9,000 violations.
  • 10% of nursing homes had violations that caused actual physical harm to residents or worse.
  • Over 40% (3,800) of the abuse violations followed the filing of a formal complaint, usually by concerned family members.
  • Many verbal abuse violations were found.
  • Occasions of sexual abuse.
  • Incidents of physical abuse causing numerous injuries such as fractured femur, hip, elbow, wrist, and other injuries.

Dangerously understaffed nursing homes lead to neglect, abuse, overuse of medications, and physical restraints. In 1990, Congress mandated an exhaustive study of nurse-to-patient ratios in nursing homes. The study was finally begun in 1998 and took four years to complete.(120) A spokesperson for The National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform commented on the study: “They compiled two reports of three volumes each thoroughly documenting the number of hours of care residents must receive from nurses and nursing assistants to avoid painful, even dangerous, conditions such as bedsores and infections. Yet it took the Department of Health and Human Services and Secretary Tommy Thompson only four months to dismiss the report as ‘insufficient.'”(121) Although preventable with proper nursing care, bedsores occur three times more commonly in nursing homes than in acute care or veterans hospitals.(122).

Because many nursing home patients suffer from chronic debilitating conditions, their assumed cause of death often is unquestioned by physicians. Some studies show that as many as 50% of deaths due to restraints, falls, suicide, homicide, and choking in nursing homes may be covered up.(123,124) It is possible that many nursing home deaths are instead attributed to heart disease. In fact, researchers have found that heart disease may be over-represented in the general population as a cause of death on death certificates by 8-24%. In the elderly, the overreporting of heart disease as a cause of death is as much as twofold.(125)

That very few statistics exist concerning malnutrition in acute-care hospitals and nursing homes demonstrates the lack of concern in this area. While a survey of the literature turns up few US studies, one revealing US study evaluated the nutritional status of 837 patients in a 100-bed subacute-care hospital over a 14-month period. The study found only 8% of the patients were well nourished, while 29% were malnourished and 63% were at risk of malnutrition. As a result, 25% of the malnourished patients required readmission to an acute-care hospital, compared to 11% of the well-nourished patients. The authors concluded that malnutrition reached epidemic proportions in patients admitted to this subacute-care facility.(126)

Many studies conclude that physical restraints are an underreported and preventable cause of death. Studies show that compared to no restraints, the use of restraints carries a higher mortality rate and economic burden.(127-129) Studies have found that physical restraints, including bedrails, are the cause of at least 1 in every 1,000 nursing-home deaths.(130-132)

Deaths caused by malnutrition, dehydration, and physical restraints, however, are rarely recorded on death certificates. Several studies reveal that nearly half of the listed causes of death on death certificates for elderly people with chronic or multi-system disease are inaccurate.(133) Even though 1 in 5 people die in nursing homes, an autopsy is performed in less than 1% of these deaths.(134).

Overmedicating Seniors

Dr. Robert Epstein, chief medical officer of Medco Health Solutions Inc. (a unit of Merck & Co.), conducted a study in 2003 of drug trends among the elderly.(135) He found that seniors are going to multiple physicians, getting multiple prescriptions, and using multiple pharmacies. Medco oversees drug-benefit plans for more than 60 million Americans, including 6.3 million seniors who received more than 160 million prescriptions. According to the study, the average senior receives 25 prescriptions each year. Among those 6.3 million seniors, a total of 7.9 million medication alerts were triggered: less than one-half that number, 3.4 million, were detected in 1999. About 2.2 million of those alerts indicated excessive dosages unsuitable for seniors, and about 2.4 million alerts indicated clinically inappropriate drugs for the elderly. Reuters interviewed Kasey Thompson, director of the Center on Patient Safety at the American Society of Health System Pharmacists, who noted: “There are serious and systemic problems with poor continuity of care in the United States .” He says this study represents only “the tip of the iceberg” of a national problem.

According to Drug Benefit Trends , the average number of prescriptions dispensed per non-Medicare HMO member per year rose 5.6% from 1999 to 2000, - from 7.1 to 7.5 prescriptions. The average number dispensed for Medicare members increased 5.5%, from 18.1 to 19.1 prescriptions.(136) The total number of prescriptions written in the US in 2000 was 2.98 billion, or 10.4 prescriptions for every man, woman, and child.(137)

In a study of 818 residents of residential care facilities for the elderly, 94% were receiving at least one medication at the time of the interview. The average intake of medications was five per resident; the authors noted that many of these drugs were given without a documented diagnosis justifying their use.(138)

Seniors and groups like the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) are demanding that prescription drug coverage be a basic right.(139) They have accepted allopathic medicine's overriding assumption that aging and dying in America must be accompanied by drugs in nursing homes and eventual hospitalization. Seniors are given the choice of either high-cost patented drugs or low-cost generic drugs. Drug companies attempt to keep the most expensive drugs on the shelves and suppress access to generic drugs, despite facing stiff fines of hundreds of millions of dollars levied by the federal government.(140,141) In 2001, some of the world's largest drug companies were fined a record $871 million for conspiring to increase the price of vitamins.(142)

Current AARP recommendations for diet and nutrition assume that seniors are getting all the nutrition they need in an average diet. At most, AARP suggests adding extra calcium and a multivitamin and mineral supplement.(143)

Ironically, studies also indicate underuse of proper pain medication for patients who need it. One study evaluated pain management in a group of 13,625 cancer patients, aged 65 and over, living in nursing homes. While almost 30% of the patients reported pain, more than 25% received no pain relief medication, 16% received a mild analgesic drug, 32% received a moderate analgesic drug, and 26% received adequate pain-relieving morphine. The authors concluded that older patients and minority patients were more likely to have their pain untreated.(144)

WHAT REMAINS TO BE UNCOVERED

Our ongoing research will continue to quantify the morbidity, mortality, and financial loss due to:

  1. X-ray exposures (mammography, fluoroscopy, CT scans).
  2. Overuse of antibiotics for all conditions.
  3. Carcinogenic drugs (hormone replacement therapy,* immunosuppressive and prescription drugs).
  4. Cancer chemotherapy(70)
  5. Surgery and unnecessary surgery (cesarean section, radical mastectomy, preventive mastectomy, radical hysterectomy, prostatectomy, cholecystectomies, cosmetic surgery, arthroscopy, etc.).
  6. Discredited medical procedures and therapies.
  7. Unproven medical therapies.
  8. Outpatient surgery.
  9. Doctors themselves.

* Part of our ongoing research will be to quantify the mortality and morbidity caused by hormone replacement therapy (HRT) since the 1940s. In December 2000, a government scientific advisory panel recommended that synthetic estrogen be added to the nation's list of cancer-causing agents. HRT, either synthetic estrogen alone or combined with synthetic progesterone, is used by an estimated 13.5 to 16 million women in the US.(145) The aborted Women's Health Initiative Study (WHI) of 2002 showed that women taking synthetic estrogen combined with synthetic progesterone have a higher incidence of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, stroke, and heart disease, with little evidence of osteoporosis reduction or dementia prevention. WHI researchers, who usually never make recommendations except to suggest more studies, advised doctors to be very cautious about prescribing HRT to their patients.(100,146-150)

Results of the “Million Women Study” on HRT and breast cancer in the UK were published in medical journal The Lancet in August 2003. According to lead author Prof. Valerie Beral, director of the Cancer Research UK Epidemiology Unit: "We estimate that over the past decade, use of HRT by UK women aged 50-64 has resulted in an extra 20,000 breast cancers, estrogen-progestagen (combination) therapy accounting for 15,000 of these.”(151) We were unable to find statistics on breast cancer, stroke, uterine cancer, or heart disease caused by HRT used by American women. Because the US population is roughly six times that of the UK, it is possible that 120,000 cases of breast cancer have been caused by HRT in the past decade.

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