Sunday, February 21, 2010

Navy Investigates Murtha's Death - CNN's Elizabeth Cohen Reports Unhelpful Advice

Nine days after my post wondering if the late Rep. John Murtha's death after an elective gallbladder surgery was a result of a preventable medical error, CNN and the Washington Post report that the Navy is now opening an investigation.

"The review is being conducted to determine if Murtha died due to a preventable surgical error and whether any action against those who performed the surgery is potentially warranted." according to the CNN article.

While this is good news, what I found rather disappointing was CNN's senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen thoughts on how Murtha might have acted differently to avoid this unforseen outcome.

"You really have to be an aware and empowered patient because in those two days it's likely that he likely felt something that he felt some discomfort or felt a bit ill and, of course, we aren't trying to blame the patient but if you feel anything at all strange following a surgery you have to go back to that surgeon."

While I suspect she is trying to be helpful, the advice she offers isn't particularly meaningful. Who doesn't feel a little discomfort, feel strange, or a bit ill after having surgery? What other past life experience provides a reference point on whether this post-operative recovery will turn out fine or be completely disastrous?

The reason she would say such a thing is because our healthcare system is not as good as it must be in preventing medical errors and eliminating missed opportunities for prevention and screenings. Patients don't want to constantly worry about being an "aware and empowered patient". They don't want to be burdened with the responsibility of being vigilant for bad outcomes. They would rather can focus on healing and getting better.

Our healthcare system must continue to focus on improving patient safety.

So, in the end, was Murtha's death preventable? While I don't have any specifics of his case, my sense is that unfortunately his death was the result of a known risk and surgical complication and not due to gross incompetence or negligence. Let's be frank the Navy's review of Murtha's death is only because of his status as a very visible Congressman. Had this occurred to someone else, I doubt a death after gallbladder surgery would have received this level of scrutiny.

If this review is done objectively, then I don't expect anyone to be reprimanded or fired.

His death, however, does serve as important reminder. Only have surgery if it is absolutely necessary.

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