“Unlike Pilots, Doctors Don’t Go Down with Their Planes”


(p. C1) With all the tools available to modern medicine — the blood tests and M.R.I.’s and endoscopes — you might think that misdiagnosis has become a rare thing. But you would be wrong. Studies of autopsies have shown that doctors seriously misdiagnose fatal illnesses about 20 percent of the time. So millions of patients are being treated for the wrong disease.
As shocking as that is, the more astonishing fact may be that the rate has not really changed since the 1930’s. “No improvement!” was how an article in the normally exclamation-free Journal of the American Medical Association summarized the situation.
. . .
But we still could be doing a lot better. Under the current medical system, doctors, nurses, lab technicians and hospital executives are not actually paid to come up with the right diagnosis. They are paid to perform tests and to do surgery and to dispense drugs.
There is no bonus for curing someone and no penalty for failing, except when the mistakes rise to the level of malpractice. So even though doctors can have the best intentions, they have little economic incentive to spend time double-checking their instincts, and hospitals have little incentive to give them the tools to do so.
. . .
(p. C4) Joseph Britto, a former intensive-care doctor, likes to compare medicine’s attitude toward mistakes with the airline industry’s. At the insistence of pilots, who have the ultimate incentive not to mess up, airlines have studied their errors and nearly eliminated crashes.
“Unlike pilots,” Dr. Britto said, “doctors don’t go down with their planes.”

For the full story, see:
DAVID LEONHARDT. “Why Doctors So Often Get It Wrong.” The New York Times (Weds., February 22, 2006): C1 & C4.

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