KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Medical Advances Abound While Reports About Medical Errors Persist

The Wall Street Journal reports on "20 health-care advances to give thanks for this Thanksgiving." Among the most key: "Life expectancy in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 77.9 years in 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available, continuing a long upward trend. (That's 75.3 years for men and 80.4 years for women.) ... Death rates dropped significantly for eight of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S., including cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, accidents, diabetes, homicides and pneumonia, from 2006 to 2007."

The column notes, though, that setbacks have also occurred and "the gains haven't been universally shared. ...  Infant mortality remains high. Teen pregnancy is up. Obesity is rising. Organ transplants are down. The decline in cigarette smoking has stalled." But researchers are looking at the possibility of "personalized cancer medicines, promising drugs for lupus and Lou Gehrig's disease, gene therapy and cancer vaccines, and tests that may one day discern small deadly cancers from larger, slower ones" (Beck, 11/23).

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal Health Blog reports that a survey to measure burnout and quality of life among surgeons found that 9 percent said "they were concerned they had made a 'major medical error' in the past three months." The paper, published by the Annals of Surgery, said surgeons do not appear to make more mistakes than other doctors but points out that "errors made by surgeons may have more severe consequences for patients due to the interventional nature of surgical practice. Those who said they had made an error also showed more signs of depression and emotional exhaustion, the authors found. ... Overall, 40% of those who responded were 'burned out,' according to the authors, and 30% showed symptoms of depression" (Goldstein, 11/23).

In a separate posting, The Health Blog reports that at a recent meeting the American Medical Association adopted a new policy opposing a recommendation from the Institute of Medicine to guarantee sleep time to medical residents. "Mandatory naps could 'have significant unintended consequences for continuity of patient care and safety, as well as being difficult and expensive to implement and monitor,' the AMA's recommendations say." The IOM in a report last year recommended that residents working shifts longer than 16 hours be given mandatory nap time. "Medical residencies, the clinical training docs do after finishing medical school, are famously intense. A few years back, in the face of arguments that exhausted residents are more likely to make mistakes, the group that oversees residency programs adopted work limits for residents" (Goldstein, 11/23). This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.