Keeping 'em alive

Nov 12 2010 Published by under Medicine

As I prepare to emerge from my self-imposed hiatus, I've decided to share some classic posts.  Thanks for reading.  --PalMD

One of the frequent complaints I hear about real medicine is that it is dangerous. Of course, it's true---so is riding in a train, but it sure beats walking. And that's the danger of this particular fallacy---yes, medicine is a sharp tool, but it's also an effective tool, so we must use it properly. And this is where the tools of evidence- and science-based medicine can give us a hand.
The potential harms of modern medicine must be approached carefully. If they are ignored or approached in an ineffective way, we'll miss an opportunity to save lives. This comment is typical of the type of thinking that gets one in trouble:

You asked if so-called traditional Chinese medicine has ever eradicated any diseases. Well, yes. It pretty much eradicated one that is in epidemic numbers in the U.S. and most of the developed world: Iatrogenic disease.

This is wrong is so many ways. The definition of "iatrogenic" is difficult. The traditional definition is "adverse effects of medical treatment or advice," and that's probably the one he's using. One could broaden this to include failure to give proper advice, as inaction by a physician has similar consequences to action, so negligence is also a form of iatrogenesis. The physician has the tools, but doesn't use them, and the patient suffers. But let's examine the original meaning.

The way in which our commenter is wrong is the "false dichotomy". Yes, medical errors would be reduced to zero if we didn't treat people, but the consequences would be rather dramatic. Our goal should not be to abandon modern medicine because it sometimes causes harm. Our goal is to reduce iatrogenic illness in a science-based way.

Strangely enough, this is being done. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine (effectively discussed here) described a study in which surgical checklists reduced errors. This study was based on earlier work by Peter Provonost of Johns Hopkins, the subject of a terrific piece in the New Yorker. (Related commentary here.)

The basic idea is this: intravenous catheters in intensive care units (ICUs) often become infected. While they are necessary for the delivery of medications and the monitoring of hemodynamic parameters, infections can be devastating. This study made use of a large number of ICU beds (including 85% of ICU beds in my home state). The project, called "Keystone", asked the ICU staff to do one simple thing (emphasis mine):

The study intervention targeted clinicians' use of five evidence-based procedures recommended by the CDC and identified as having the greatest effect on the rate of catheter-related bloodstream infection and the lowest barriers to implementation. The recommended procedures are hand washing, using full-barrier precautions during the insertion of central venous catheters, cleaning the skin with chlorhexidine, avoiding the femoral site if possible, and removing unnecessary catheters.

Strategies to increase the use of these procedures have been described elsewhere. Briefly, clinicians were educated about practices to control infection and harm resulting from catheter-related bloodstream infections, a central-line cart with necessary supplies was created, a checklist was used to ensure adherence to infection-control practices, providers were stopped (in nonemergency situations) if these practices were not being followed, the removal of catheters was discussed at daily rounds, and the teams received feedback regarding the number and rates of catheter-related bloodstream infection at monthly and quarterly meetings, respectively. In April 2004, a letter and a baseline survey were sent to the chief executive officers (CEOs) of the participating hospitals. The letter outlined the evidence supporting the use of chlorhexidine and asked the CEOs to stock chlorhexidine in their hospitals before implementing the study intervention.

A checklist was used. Supplies were provided. Non-emergent procedures were stopped if procedures weren't followed. And a checklist was used.

So what happened?

The baseline rate of catheter-related infections was about 2.7/1000 catheter days. After implementation, the rate was zero.

Yes, zero.

One particular serious iatrogenic illness was effectively eradicated by a simple, easy-to-implement intervention. My earlier commenter was correct; if we stop using modern medicine, we will have no iatrogenic disease. We also will be left with a much sicker populace and a lower age of mortality. It turns out we have a third path---use science-based medicine to solve the problem of iatrogenesis. Not all problems will be solved so well as this one---there will always be some non-zero rate of serious medical complications, but as this study shows, it doesn't always take a whole lot to make a big difference.


Peter Pronovost, M.D., Ph.D., Dale Needham, M.D., Ph.D., Sean Berenholtz, M.D., David Sinopoli, M.P.H., M.B.A., Haitao Chu, M.D., Ph.D., Sara Cosgrove, M.D., Bryan Sexton, Ph.D., Robert Hyzy, M.D., Robert Welsh, M.D., Gary Roth, M.D., Joseph Bander, M.D. (2006). An Intervention to Decrease Catheter-Related Bloodstream Infections in the ICU New England Journal of Medicine, 355 (26), 2725-2732

5 responses so far

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    The stated assertion is also wrong on another level. So-called [1] "Traditional Chinese Medicine" by no means did away with iatrogenic harm to patients -- have you looked at some of the chemicals that they routinely administered? Quite a few have honking nasty side-effects, including vasopressor effects. Of course, absent any way of observing blood pressure and without any systematic process for connecting their drugs to Uncle Chu dropping over from an aneurism, don't ask them for detailed risk profiles.
    [1] Actually, the term (and many of the practices) go all the way back to Chairman Mao.

  • Dianne says:

    DC: Indeed. Consider one of the more successful TCMs, one that has been adopted by western medicine: arsenic. Arsenic trioxide is based on a TCM that contained (IIRC) arsenic, another heavy metal, and snake venom. It was shown to be effective in treating acute promyelocytic leukemia but it was far from side effect free. (Though it turned out that all of the efficacy was from the arsenic and most of the side effects were from the snake venom, so only the arsenic component was adopted.) The bottom line is that any substance that can have an effect can have a side effect, be it herb or engineered compound.

  • PDelaney says:

    Placebo CAN be iatrogenic.....if a person with cancer opts for acupunture instead of real medical therapy and subsequently dies, you can blame the acupunture. Thus, acupunture would be iatrogenic.

  • DanWalter says:

    Here's my Johns Hopkins patient safety experience:Adventures in Cardiology

  • Denice Walter says:

    No relation.