Serial killers in white coats cause real horrors

Over the weekend, you may have seen zombies, goblins, and ghosts trolling your street. And we all went through the return to shorter, darker days as Daylight Savings Time ended. Indeed, these are dark days. Or so I thought when I came across this real-life horror story…

Doctor errors kill 500,000 Americans a year.

That grim statistic comes from a provocative book entitled Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them written by Joe Graedon, M.S., one of the country’s leading consumer pharmacy experts and Teresa Graedon, Ph.D., a medical anthropologist.

Half-a-million deaths due to medical error is a shocking statistic. So, I did some research of my own to get a sense of how such a number is even possible.

Medical mistakes—more dangerous than wars

It’s almost as many Americans as those who died in the U.S. Civil War. And more than the number of Americans killed in WW I. It’s almost as many as the number of Americans killed in WW II. It’s almost 10 times the number of soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. And more than 100 times the number of casualties from the Iraqi Wars.

It’s also equal to the number of people who die each year of heart disease or cancer–our top “natural” killers. It’s triple the number of yearly accidents, suicides and homicides combined. It’s 10 times the number of yearly influenza and pneumonia deaths combined. (And the number of U.S. Ebola virus casualties is so small it doesn’t even register on this scale.)

Now, let’s back up…

Overall, just over 2.5 million deaths occur each year. And we can attribute medical error to about one-fifth of all deaths.

So, why do medical errors account for so many deaths?

End-of-life care increases the odds of errors

The fact is, most Americans die in the hospital. And for most Americans, more money will be spent on medical care during the last six months of life than for their entire lives up to that time.

Now consider the amount of intensive, invasive medical care routinely received during these last six months of life. It’s not surprising so many errors occur. And not surprising so many deaths occur from those errors.

Few escape this mortal world without being helped along by the medical ministrations of physicians, as was once said about King Charles II (d. 1685), King George III (d. 1810), as well as George Washington (d. 1799). They were all ultimately killed by their doctors.

Due to the blessings of democracy, government-subsidized healthcare, and medical technology, virtually all Americans today are treated to the full benefits of medical intervention once reserved for kings, princes and presidents.

Aside from the obvious problems of end-of-life care, the Graedons say that doctors make errors about 15 percent of the time. And, they say, the No. 1 error is actually misdiagnosis–which comes at the beginning of the disease management process, not at the end.

According to an expert at John Hopkins University, David Newman-Toker, M.D., mistaken diagnosis is the most frequent, most severe, and most costly of medical mistakes in malpractice suits that result in damages to patients, and to their family and survivors.

Modern technology: Breeding more misdiagnoses?

In 1976, I visited the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit in Malaysia to study the treatment of scrub typhus. While I was there, I was shown around a hospital outside Kuala Lumpur. The Malay doctor told me they are trained in the “British” tradition of medicine. They make a diagnosis on first entering the room–without the time and expense of doing a lot of tests. He described how a patient has the “look of malaria.” And they started treating him without having to do a blood test.

Physicians here used to employ a similar process, basing diagnoses on physical exam. And then, only using tests to confirm or rule out a diagnosis. But today, the practice of physical diagnosis has been virtually replaced by a battery of arbitrary lab tests, imaging studies, and microscopic examinations.

Unfortunately,  it appears our modern diagnostic technology has not brought the problem of diagnostic errors under control. Graedon says doctors are overconfident and may not take the time–or be willing–to consider alternate possibilities.

Furthermore, many doctors only consider a patient’s nutritional inadequacies as a last resort, despite obvious signs.

In fact, remember the story I told you about Bill? He went to the ER suffering from classic symptoms of a vitamin B deficiency. But the doctors missed the obvious. And sent him home suffering. Of course, the symptoms got worse as time went on. And Bill made more wasted trips to the ER. They tested him for nearly every frightening disease in the book–from multiple sclerosis to Parkinson’s disease–and ran up quite an expensive hospital bill. Finally, someone noticed the obvious and diagnosed and treated him correctly and easily.

We also have an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency in this country. But doctors almost never consider this common deficiency when it comes to medical conditions of body and mind. It’s still strictly a “bone vitamin” for most mainstream physicians.

And when have you ever heard a doctor talk to you about the proven ability of vitamins to prevent diseases that are otherwise difficult or impossible to treat? Such as preventing lung cancer with vitamin C, as I reported last month. Or preventing colon cancer with vitamin D.

Bottom line?

We’ve just had the time of year for masquerading, but don’t let your correct diagnosis be disguised.

Make sure your doctor explains your diagnosis. Ask him or her if there are potential nutritional causes that may be a factor. And make sure to request blood tests annually to measure B and D vitamin levels.

And if you’re not comfortable or convinced with your doctor’s diagnosis, get a second opinion.


  1. Graedon, Joe, and Teresa Graedon. Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them. New York: Crown Archetype, 2011. Print.
  2. “Doctor Errors Kill 500,000 Americans a year,” Newsmax ( 8/26/2014