By Tereza Hubkova, M.D.
If you believe wholeheartedly and confidently in the American health care system, I am afraid I will disappoint you. Recent statistics show that medical errors and preventable complications of health care may be the third leading cause of death in the United States—behind only heart disease and cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that as many as 99,000 people in American hospitals die annually from infections they acquire while in the hospital. Similarly, there may be as many as 7,000 deaths per year from medication errors in hospitals alone; approximately 2,000 deaths per year occur from unnecessary surgery; about 106,000 deaths per year occur because of adverse effects of medications; and roughly 20,000 deaths per year occur from other hospital errors.
We can no longer pretend that everything is all right. While the United States spends significantly more money on health care than all other countries, it far too often has worse results. In other words, higher spending on health care does not directly correlate to prolonging our lives. In 2000, the United States spent more per capita on health care than any other country in the world: roughly $4,500 per person on average. Switzerland was second highest at $3,300. Despite this, the average American life expectancy ranks only 36th in the world—at 78.3 years of age.
Throughout my years in the United States practicing what by all standards would be considered excellent medicine, I was haunted by feelings otherwise. After working in internal medicine within teaching and community hospitals as well as primary-care settings, I have personally witnessed the shortcomings and potential dangers of hospital care. I increasingly began to wonder if, when I entered medical school, this was really what I had aspired to. Following established guidelines seemed to be producing only mediocre results. And I knew I could do so much more for my patients if only I had the opportunity to spend more time with them, utilizing all I have learned about medicine and the human condition—not only what health care policymakers wanted me to.
This sense of disillusionment was not a reflection of any regrets I had in choosing my career, but in realizing that the U.S. health care system is first-and-foremost a business—a big business—and as such it commonly prioritizes making profits over helping individuals (i.e., cost-benefit). I was quite literally forced to run from patient to patient to keep up with expected productivity, to see as many patients as possible, and to maximize profits. If you have to get a patient out the door in less than fifteen minutes, to move on to the next one, there is no time for meaningful conversation or a truly healing relationship.
The Hippocratic Oath is a pledge historically taken by doctors vowing to ethically practice medicine. The most famous portion of the Hippocratic Oath is likely, "never do harm to anyone." While inarguably of utmost importance, my favorite line is, "I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure." Our health care system doesn’t seem to allow for the investment in time necessary to truly cure people—mind, body, and spirit. Throughout my career, instead of being encouraged to seek the root causes of my patients’ illnesses, I often found myself being directed merely to suppress symptoms with prescription medications—akin to bandaging a wound before removing the knife. This is what doctors are taught; and this is what is promoted by our major health institutions. Only a day or two of a typical four year medical school lesson plan focuses on nutrition. The same can be said of understanding physical activity, exercise, and sleep as integral components of the healing process. As opposed to genetics, epigenetics (i.e., environment and lifestyle) has a far greater impact on our health, yet such a disproportionate amount of time in medical school is spent on reactive measures such as surgery and prescription medications rather than proactive prevention of disease.
Today, I am an internationally known speaker and expert in integrative medicine. I practice medicine as an integrative physician and frequent lecturer at the world-renowned Integrative Health Center of Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts—treating high-profile and notable patients. There I spend up to an hour or more with each patient, and I have firsthand experience how some of the simplest complementary and holistic therapies reap amazing results by inducing healing, reducing stress, and creating an overall positive experience when overcoming a health crisis. Further, I lecture on such topics one-hundred or more times per years, enthusiastically carrying my message to a large and varied audience.
In my upcoming book, Surviving Hospitalization: A Patient's Guide to Avoiding the Dangers of Drugs, Germs, and Medical Errors While Recovering Naturally, I will tell the truth about how hospital care really works, reveal facts about the dangers inherent to stepping beyond a hospital’s front doors, and most importantly, provide useful tips on how people can protect themselves and their loved ones. I hope to increase people’s chances of not only surviving a hospital stay, but attaining a full recovery with a minimum of pain and hassle. With the information presented, patients will be able to navigate their way through a hospital stay as efficiently and safely as possible. Rather than frighten you, I am hoping to inspire you to educate yourself and take charge of your own health, in partnership with your physician—not just blindly following all recommendations. Further, I will point out that lifestyle changes, which a doctor can’t make for you, are usually more important and powerful than the ongoing use of medications.
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