Dr. Rath Health Foundation

Dr. Rath Health Foundation

Responsibility for a healthy world Dr. Rath Research Institute 100+ Studies Published In PubMed

Death By Medicine

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Unnecessary Surgical Procedures


1974: 2.4 million unnecessary surgeries performed annually resulting in 11,900 deaths at an annual cost of $3.9 billion. (73,74)
2001: 7.5 million unnecessary surgical procedures resulting in 37,136 deaths at a cost of $122 billion (using 1974 dollars). (3)

It’s very difficult to obtain accurate statistics when studying unnecessary surgery. Dr. Leape in 1989 wrote that perhaps 30% of controversial surgeries are unnecessary. Controversial surgeries include Cesarean section, tonsillectomy, appendectomy, hysterectomy, gastrectomy for obesity, breast implants, and elective breast implants. (74)

Almost thirty years ago, in 1974, the Congressional Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce held hearings on unnecessary surgery. They found that 17.6% of recommendations for surgery were not confirmed by a second opinion. The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations extrapolated these figures and estimated that, on a nationwide basis, there were 2.4 million unnecessary surgeries performed annually, resulting in 11,900 deaths at an annual cost of $3.9 billion. (73)

In 2001, the top 50 medical and surgical procedures totaled approximately 41.8 million. These figures were taken from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project within the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (13) Using 17.6% from the 1974 U.S. Congressional House Subcommittee Oversight Investigation as the percentage of unnecessary surgical procedures, and extrapolating from the death rate in 1974, we come up with an unnecessary procedure number of 7.5 million (7,489,718) and a death rate of 37,136, at a cost of $122 billion (using 1974 dollars).

Researchers performed a very similar analysis, using the 1974 ‘unnecessary surgery percentage’ of 17.6, on back surgery. In 1995, researchers testifying before the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that of 250,000 back surgeries in the U.S. at a hospital cost of $11,000 per patient, the total number of unnecessary back surgeries each year in the U.S. could approach 44,000, costing as much as $484 million. (75)

The unnecessary surgery figures are escalating just as prescription drugs driven by television advertising. Media-driven surgery such as gastric bypass for obesity “modeled” by Hollywood personalities seduces obese people to think this route is safe and sexy. There is even a problem of surgery being advertised on the Internet. (76) A study in Spain declares that between 20 and 25% of total surgical practice represents unnecessary operations. (77)

According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics from 1979 to 1984, there was a 9% increase in the total number of surgical procedures, and the number of surgeons grew by 20%. The author notes that there has not been a parallel increase in the number of surgeries despite a recent large increase in the number of surgeons. There was concern that there would be too many surgeons to share a small surgical caseload. (78)

The previous author spoke too soon - there was no cause to worry about a small surgical caseload. By 1994, there was an increase of 38% for a total of 7,929,000 cases for the top ten surgical procedures. In 1983, surgical cases totaled 5,731,000. In 1994, cataract surgery was number one with over two million operations, and second was Cesarean section (858,000 procedures). Inguinal hernia operations were third (689,000 procedures), and knee arthroscopy, in seventh place, grew 153% (632,000 procedures) while prostate surgery declined 29% (229,000 procedures). (79)

The list of iatrogenic diseases from surgery is as long as the list of procedures themselves. In one study epidural catheters were inserted to deliver anesthetic into the epidural space around the spinal nerves to block them for lower Cesarean section, abdominal surgery, or prostate surgery. In some cases, non-sterile technique, during catheter insertion, resulted in serious infections, even leading to limb paralysis. (80)

In one review of the literature, the authors demonstrated “a significant rate of overutilization of coronary angiography, coronary artery surgery, cardiac pacemaker insertion, upper gastrointestinal endoscopies, carotid endarterectomies, back surgery, and pain-relieving procedures.” (81)

A 1987 JAMA study found the following significant levels of inappropriate surgery: 17% of cases for coronary angiography, 32% for carotid endarterectomy, and 17% for upper gastrointestinal tract endoscopy. (82) Using the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) statistics provided by the government for 2001, the number of people getting upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, which usually entails biopsy, was 697,675; the number getting endarterectomy was 142,401; and the number having coronary angiography was 719,949. (13) Therefore, according to the JAMA study 17%, or 118,604 people had an unnecessary endoscopy procedure. Endarterectomy occurred in 142,401 patients; potentially 32% or 45,568 did not need this procedure. And 17% of 719,949, or 122,391 people receiving coronary angiography were subjected to this highly invasive procedure unnecessarily. These are all forms of medical iatrogenesis.


Medical And Surgical Procedures

It is instructive to know the mortality rate associated with different medical and surgical procedures. Even though we must sign release forms when we undergo any procedure, many of us are in denial about the true risks involved. We seem to hold a collective impression that since medical and surgical procedures are so commonplace, they are both necessary and safe. Unfortunately, partaking in allopathic medicine itself is one of the highest causes of death as well as the most expensive way to die.

Shouldn’t the daily death rate of iatrogenesis in hospitals, out of hospitals, in nursing homes, and psychiatric residences be reported like the pollen count or the smog index? Let’s stop hiding the truth from ourselves. It’s only when we focus on the problem and ask the right questions can we hope to find solutions.

Perhaps the word “healthcare” gives us the illusion that medicine is about health. Allopathic medicine is not a purveyor of healthcare but of disease-care. Studying the mortality figures in the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) within the U.S. government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, we found many points of interest. (13) The HCUP computer program that calculates the annual mortality statistics for all U.S. hospital discharges is only as good as the codes that are put into the system. In an email correspondence with HCUP, we were told that the mortality rates that were indicated in tables and charts for each procedure were not necessarily due to the procedure but only indicated that someone who received that procedure died either from their original disease or from the procedure.

Therefore there is no way of knowing exactly how many people died from a particular procedure. There are also no codes for adverse drug side effects, none for surgical mishap, and none for medical error. Until there are codes for medical error, statistics of those people who are dying from various types of medical error will be buried in the general statistics. There is a code for “poisoning & toxic effects of drugs” and a code for “complications of treatment.” However, the mortality figures registered in these categories are very low and don’t compare with what we know from studies such as the JAMA 1998 study (1) that said there were an average of 106,000 prescription medication deaths per year.


Why Aren't Medical And Surgical Procedures Studied?

In 1978, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) reported that, “Only 10%-20% of all procedures currently used in medical practice have been shown to be efficacious by controlled trial." (83) In 1995, the OTA compared medical technology in eight countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom, and the United States) and again noted that few medical procedures in the U.S. had been subjected to clinical trial. It also reported that infant mortality was high and life expectancy was low compared to other developed countries. (84) Although almost ten years old, much of what was said in this report holds true today. The report lays the blame for the high cost of medicine squarely at the feet of the medical free-enterprise system and the fact that there is no national health care policy. It describes the failure of government attempts to control health care costs due to market incentive and profit motive in the financing and organization of health care including private insurance, hospital system, physician services, and drug and medical device industries. Whereas we may want to expand health-care, expansion of disease-care is the goal of free enterprise. “Health Care Technology and Its Assessment in Eight Countries” is also the last report prepared by the OTA, which was shut down in 1995. It’s also, perhaps, the last honest, in-depth look at modern medicine. Because of the importance of this 60-page report, we enclose a summary in the Appendix.


Surgical Errors Finally Reported

Just hours before completion of this paper, statistics on surgical-related deaths became available. A October 8, 2003 JAMA study from the U.S. government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) documented 32,000 mostly surgery-related deaths costing $9 billion and accounting for 2.4 million extra days in the hospital in 2000. (85) In a press release accompanying the JAMA study, the AHRQ director, Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D., admitted, “This study gives us the first direct evidence that medical injuries pose a real threat to the American public and increase the costs of health care.” (86) Hospital administrative data from 20% of the nation’s hospitals were analyzed for eighteen different surgical complications including postoperative infections, foreign objects left in wounds, surgical wounds reopening, and post-operative bleeding. In the same press release the study’s authors said that, “The findings greatly underestimate the problem, since many other complications happen that are not listed in hospital administrative data.” They also felt that, "The message here is that medical injuries can have a devastating impact on the health care system. We need more research to identify why these injuries occur and find ways to prevent them from happening." One of the authors, Dr. Zhan said that improved medical practices, including an emphasis on better hand-washing, might help reduce the morbidity and mortality rates. An accompanying JAMA editorial by health-risk researcher Dr. Saul Weingart of Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said, “Given their staggering magnitude, these estimates are clearly sobering.” (87)


Unnecessary X-Rays

When X-rays were discovered, no one knew the long-term effects of ionizing radiation. In the 1950’s monthly fluoroscopic exams at the doctor’s office were routine. You could even walk into most shoe stores and see your foot bones; looking at bones was an amusing novelty. We still don’t know the ultimate outcome of our initial escapade with X-rays.

It was common practice to use X-rays in pregnant women to measure the size of the pelvis, and make a diagnosis of twins. Finally, a study of 700,000 children born between 1947 and 1964 was conducted in thirty-seven major maternity hospitals. The children of mothers who had received pelvic X-rays during pregnancy were compared with the children of mothers who had not been X-rayed. Cancer mortality was 40% higher among the children with X-rayed mothers. (88)

In present-day medicine, coronary angiography combines an invasive surgical procedure of snaking a tube through a blood vessel in the groin up to the heart. To get any useful information during the angiography procedure X-rays are taken almost continuously with minimum dosage ranges between 460 - 1,580 mrem. The minimum radiation from a routine chest X-ray is 2 mrem. X-ray radiation accumulates in the body and it is well-known that ionizing radiation used in X-ray procedures causes gene mutation. We can only obtain guesstimates as to its impact on health from this high level of radiation. Experts manage to obscure the real effects in statistical jargon such as, “The risk for lifetime fatal cancer due to radiation exposure is estimated to be 4 in one million per 1,000 mrem.” (89)

However, Dr. John Gofman, who has been studying the effects of radiation on human health for 45 years, is prepared to tell us exactly what diagnostic X-rays are doing to our health. Dr. Gofman has a PhD in nuclear and physical chemistry and is a medical doctor. He worked on the Manhattan nuclear project, discovered uranium-2323, was the first person to isolate plutonium, and since 1960, he’s been studying the effects of radiation on human health. With five scientifically documented books totaling over 2800 pages, Dr. Gofman provides strong evidence that medical technology, specifically X-rays, CT scans, mammography, and fluoroscopy, are a contributing factor to 75% of new cancers. His 699-page report, updated in 2000, “Radiation from Medical Procedures in the Pathogenesis of Cancer and Ischemic Heart Disease: Dose-Response Studies with Physicians per 100,000 Population” (90), shows that as the number of physicians increases in a geographical area with an increase in the number of X-ray diagnostic tests, there is an associated increase in the rate of cancer and ischemic heart disease. Dr. Gofman elaborates that it’s not X-rays alone that cause the damage but a combination of health risk factors including: poor diet, smoking, abortions, and the use of birth control pills. Dr. Gofman predicts that 100 million premature deaths over the next decade will be the result of ionizing radiation.

In his book, “Preventing Breast Cancer,” Dr. Gofman says that breast cancer is the leading cause of death among American women between the ages of forty-four and fifty-five. Because breast tissue is highly radiation-sensitive, mammograms can cause cancer. The danger can be heightened by a woman’s genetic makeup, preexisting benign breast disease, artificial menopause, obesity, and hormonal imbalance. (91)

Even X-rays for back pain can lead someone into crippling surgery. Dr. Sarno, a well-known New York orthopedic surgeon, found that X-rays don’t always tell the truth. In his books he cites studies on normal people without a trace of back pain that have spinal abnormalities on X-ray. Other studies have shown that some people with back pain have normal spines on X-ray. So, Dr. Sarno says there is not necessarily any association between back pain and spinal X-ray abnormality. (92) However, if a person happens to have back pain and an incidental abnormality on X-ray, they may be treated surgically, sometimes with no change in back pain, or worsening of back pain, or even permanent disability.

In addition, doctors often order X-rays as protection against malpractice claims to give the impression that they are leaving no stone unturned. It appears that doctors are putting their own fears before the interests of their patients.


Unnecessary Hospitalization


8.9 million (8,925,033) people were hospitalized unnecessarily in 2001. (4)

In a study of inappropriate hospitalization 1,132 medical records were reviewed by two doctors. Twenty-three percent of all admissions were inappropriate and an additional 17% could have been handled in ambulatory out-patient clinics. Thirty-four percent of all hospital days were also inappropriate and could have been avoided. (93) The rate of inappropriate admissions in 1990 was 23.5%. (94) In 1999, another study confirmed the figure of 24% inappropriate admissions indicating a consistent pattern from 1986 to 1999 (95), showing steady reporting of approximately 24% inappropriate admissions each year. Putting these figures into present-day terms using the HCUP database, the total number of patient discharges from hospitals in the U.S. in 2001 was 37,187,641. (13) The above data indicate that 24% of those hospitalizations need never have occurred. It further means that 8,925,033 people were exposed to unnecessary medical intervention in hospitals and therefore represent almost 9 million potential iatrogenic episodes. (4)


Women's Experience In Medicine

Briefly, we will look at the medical iatrogenesis of women in particular. Dr. Martin Charcot (1825-1893) was world-renowned, the most celebrated doctor of his time. He practiced in the Paris hospital La Salpetriere. He became an expert in hysteria diagnosing an average of ten hysterical women each day, transforming them into… “iatrogenic monsters,” turning simple ‘neurosis’ into hysteria. (96) The number of women diagnosed with hysteria and hospitalized rose from 1% in 1841 to 17% in 1883. Hysteria is derived from the Latin “hystera” meaning uterus. Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman stated very clearly in her paper that there is a tradition in U.S. medicine of excessive medical and surgical interventions on women. Only one hundred years ago male doctors decided that female psychological imbalance originated in the uterus. When surgery to remove the uterus was perfected it became the “cure” for mental instability, effecting a physical and psychological castration. Dr. Fugh-Berman noted that U.S. doctors eventually disabused themselves of that notion but have continued to treat women very differently than they treat men. (97) She cites the following:

  1. Thousands of prophylactic mastectomies are performed annually.
  2. One-third of U.S. women have had a hysterectomy before menopause.
  3. Women are prescribed drugs more frequently than are men.
  4. Women are given potent drugs for disease prevention, which results in disease substitution due to side effects.
  5. Fetal monitoring is unsupported by studies and not recommended by the CDC. (98) It confines women to a hospital bed and may result in higher incidence of Cesarean section. (99)
  6. Normal processes such as menopause and childbirth have been heavily medicalized.
  7. Synthetic hormone replacement therapy (HRT) does not prevent heart disease or dementia. It does increase the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, and gall bladder attack. (100)

We would add that as many as one-third of postmenopausal women use HRT. (101,102) These numbers are important in light of the much-publicized Women’s Health Initiative Study, which was forced to stop before its completion because of a higher death rate in the synthetic estrogen-progestin (HRT) group. (103)

Cesarean Section

In 1983, 809,000 Cesarean sections (21% of live births) were performed, making it the most common obstetric and gynecologic (OB/GYN) surgical procedure. The second most common OB/GYN operation was hysterectomy (673,000), and diagnostic dilation and curettage of the uterus (632,000) was third. In 1983, OB/GYN operations represented 23% of all surgery completed in this country. (104)

In 2001, Cesarean section is still the most common OB/GYN surgical procedure. Approximately 4 million births occur annually, with a 24% C-Section rate, i.e., 960,000 operations. In the Netherlands only 8% of babies are delivered by Cesarean section. Assuming human babies are similar in the U.S. and in the Netherlands, we are performing 640,000 unnecessary C-Sections in the U.S. with its three to four times higher mortality and 20 times greater morbidity than vaginal delivery. (105)

The Cesarean section rate was only 4.5% in the U.S. in 1965. By 1986 it had climbed to 24.1%. The author states that obviously an “uncontrolled pandemic of medically unnecessary Cesarean births is occurring.” (106) VanHam reported a Cesarean section postpartum hemorrhage rate of 7%, a hematoma formation rate of 3.5%, a urinary tract infection rate of 3%, and a combined postoperative morbidity rate of 35.7% in a high-risk population undergoing Cesarean section. (107)


Never Enough Studies

Scientists used the excuse that there were never enough studies revealing the dangers of DDT and other dangerous pesticides to ban them. They also used this excuse around the issue of tobacco, claiming that more studies were needed before they could be certain that tobacco really caused lung cancer. Even the American Medical Association (AMA) was complicit in suppressing results of tobacco research. In 1964, the Surgeon General's report condemned smoking, however the AMA refused to endorse it. What was their reason? They needed more research. Actually what they really wanted was more money and they got it from a consortium of tobacco companies who paid the AMA $18 million over the next nine years, during which the AMA said nothing about the dangers of smoking. (108)

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), "after careful consideration of the extent to which cigarettes were used by physicians in practice," began accepting tobacco advertisements and money in 1933. State journals such as the New York State Journal of Medicine also began to run Chesterfield ads claiming that cigarettes are, "Just as pure as the water you drink… and practically untouched by human hands." In 1948, JAMA argued "more can be said in behalf of smoking as a form of escape from tension than against it… there does not seem to be any preponderance of evidence that would indicate the abolition of the use of tobacco as a substance contrary to the public health." (109) Today, scientists continue to use the excuse that they need more studies before they will lend their support to restrict the inordinate use of drugs.