Sunday, November 02, 2008

Death by Medicine

By virtue of my longstanding interest in rejuvenation research, I recently revisited Ben Best’s online research on various causes of death, and I realized that I had neglected iatrogenic causes of death as the most serious mortality risk that most people face in the United States today. To wit, according to very reliable sources, at least a million people in the United States die every year primarily because they sought professional medical help. Some of these people had serious medical conditions that might have improved with competent medical treatment, but the vast majority of these people would have lived much longer and healthier without any medical treatment at all. In other words, whether you are healthy or sick, seeking medical attention is one of the riskiest things that you can do.

The largest number of reported iatrogenic deaths – some 300,000 a year – are attributed to adverse drug reactions. Of course, this leaves open the question of how many iatrogenic deaths go unreported [PDF], and what causes those deaths. To wit, as few as five percent of iatrogenic acts are ever reported; when studies of iatrogenesis actively seek out medical error, autopsies reveal rates of 35 to 40 percent of missed diagnoses causing death. Probably the most well-reported iatrogenic cause of death is bedsores, which account for over 100,000 totally preventable deaths per year. Of course, virtually all bedsores are suffered by people who are disabled and have no choice but to submit themselves to the tender mercies of potentially negligent medical care. When you do have a choice, the best way to avoid death by medicine is by being an informed and skeptical medical consumer.

Astonishingly, many widely accepted diagnostic procedures and first line treatments do more harm than good. For instance, there is substantial evidence to indicate that mammograms tend to aggravate relatively benign forms of breast cancers and other pre-existing conditions that otherwise might never become malignant, and there is no evidence to indicate that they actually aid in early detection. Similar problems exist with prostate cancer diagnoses and treatments. But the most disturbing fact that I’ve encountered in regard to cancer treatment is that chemotherapy -- widely accepted among medical professionals as the first line treatment of choice for most forms of cancer -- is wholly ineffective against most forms of cancer and dramatically reduces the quality of life for the patients who undergo it. To wit, the typical survival rate for cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy is just over two percent. (Testicular cancer and Hodgkin’s disease are the two notable exceptions.)

To be clear, iatrogenesis is not quackery. Iatrogenesis is medical error that runs the spectrum from neglect to negligence, and it includes unnecessary exposure to contagion in medical environments, misdiagnosis, and unnecessary and/or ineffective medical procedures. Such error is typically visited upon people in times of great stress who have very little knowledge of medicine and mistakenly place their faith in other people who should know what’s best for them. Meanwhile, as alluded to above, such error goes largely unreported by doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Sadly, adherence to medical protocols is typically very lax until after such negligence makes headlines. Soon thereafter, it’s back to business as usual.

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