Distracted Driving Deaths Distract Us from Medical Error Deaths?


The general public still, generally speaking, doesn't realize how much preventable harm and death occurs in healthcare each year. Efforts like the Dennis Quaid “Target Zero” TV program are trying to educate the public about how common medical harm is and, more importantly, how preventable this harm really is through simple process improvement efforts.

As I've compiled here, the estimates about the harm caused by errors and hospital acquired infections are sobering. The Boston Globe recently wrote on its editorial page that “Massachusetts should ban all cellphone use while driving” because of the 6,000 deaths that are attributed to this problem each year. Medical errors and infections are suspected of causing as many as 30 times as many deaths each year.

I'm not saying we should ignore the issue of texting and driving. I'm saying we need MORE attention on medical harm.

The Globe wrote this line that jumped out at me and prompted this post:

If any other activity caused the deaths of 6,000 people it would be banned overnight.

That “any other activity” is medical errors. It's not so simple that we can “ban” errors, unfortunately.

What we CAN do is things like this:

  • Educate the public – not to scare them – but to make them aware that healthcare causes a lot of harm
  • Also educate the public that the problem is primarily “bad systems” not “bad people”
  • Continue educating the healthcare world of the above points
  • Keep educating healthcare about the role of systems and process (including Lean) in reducing errors, improving quality, and reducing patient harm

What else can we do? What should we do?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. It seems clear that efforts made so far to drive action to make the degree of positive change we need aren’t going as far as we would hope, so thinking PDCA I think it’s time to re-evaluate what is working and what isn’t. Maybe we need to get back to drilling down on the root causes. When I think in a 5-why way, it comes down to notoriety. When we compare the number of med error deaths to airplane crashes, it’s clear that an airplane crash makes headlines – the world news. It’s a sudden, major disaster. People dying quietly, one by one, in hospitals – not so spectacular, so it doesn’t grab peoples’ attention. Equally – even moreso tragic because of the sheer numbers of deaths – but not spectacular.

    Now, Dennis Quaid’s twins. He’s Dennis Quaid – well-known movie star. If a serious medical error happens to his family – it’s news. Even though Don Berwick carries much more credibility on the issue and has been admirably addressing it for years, he’s Don Berwick – not Dennis Quaid. I’m confident (but haven’t done the numbers) there are many more people that know of Dennis Quaid’s twins than know of Don Berwick and the 100,000 lives campaign.

    Not that we want spectacular medical errors, but what can we do – how can we present it so that it IS spectacular – in a way that prompts people to action? Do we draft Dennis Quaid or someone of equal or greater notoriety? I don’t know. I do know there is a reason famous actors, athletes, etc. do endorsements and in some cases, adopt causes, and it’s not because it doesn’t work.

    I’m only speculating – other ideas out there?

  2. When using a mobile phone while driving was made illegal here in England, (touching it in anyway is illegal, including texting, or answering a call which then goes to speakerphone if it means touching the phone itself), there was an outcry! But it has cut the amount of deaths dramatically. Of course people still do it though. Text driving is more dangerous than drink driving (causes more accidents).


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