When we go to the hospital, the last thing on our mind is that something could go wrong or that we could actually become sicker than when we first went in. Unfortunately, human errors do happen, infections can spread, and surgery can occasionally be botched. Make no mistake about it; errors are quite rare, and you should certainly seek medical attention when you need it — but these bad apples are enough to spoil the public’s perception of safety in our nation’s hospitals.
It’s pretty easy for the public to be skeptical of medical care in hospitals when you don’t have to look far for tales of wrongdoing. Just last year, CNN highlighted 10 common mistakes found in hospitals, ranging from operating on the wrong body part, to patients waking up during surgery. Ultimately, some of these mistakes do result in what would be deemed a preventable death in our nation’s hospitals.
With that in mind, I thought it would be educational to delve into what actually is the leading cause of preventable death among hospital patients and what steps are being taken from a surgical and medicinal perspective to ensure that this mortality rate continues to drop.
My initial guess, without reviewing any of the data, was that hospital-acquired infections, or HAIs, would be the leading cause of preventable death. While I was on the right track, HAIs are only a top-five cause of death among hospital patients. There is actually a much more virulent killer in our hospitals that strikes about 1.1% of the patient population that undergoes surgery each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The leading cause of preventable patient death in hospitals is…
At the top of the chart in preventable hospital patient death is venous thromboembolism, or VTE — a scientific name for a blood clot. A study in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report examined VTEs between 2007 and 2009 and found that there were 547,596 instances over the given time period. An even scarier study from the American Heart Association estimates 900,000 cases of VTE occur annually, leading to some 300,000 deaths!
There are two types of VTEs: deep-vein thrombosis, or DVT — which occurs in a large vein, most often in the legs — and pulmonary embolism, or PE, which is a blockage of the main artery of the lung via a blood clot. Although DVT is more common, the vast majority of deaths are caused by pulmonary embolism.
Now that we know what the leading cause of preventable death is in our nation’s hospitals, let’s get into what’s being done to reverse these mortality rates and what that could mean for the companies involved in combating this hospital-acquired ailment.
As I see it, there are three ways that hospitals and physicians can dramatically reduce the occurrence of hospital-acquired VTE: improvement of the surgery procedure itself, better quality post-surgical medication, and more precise identification of higher-risk patients.
Reducing VTEs through more precise instrumentation
One possible way to reduce the potential for developing a blood clot is to reduce the incision size or invasiveness of a surgical procedural. Two companies working diligently on doing just this are robotic surgical system developers Intuitive Surgical, Inc. (NASDAQ:ISRG) and MAKO Surgical Corp. (NASDAQ:MAKO).
Intuitive Surgical, Inc. (NASDAQ:ISRG)’s da Vinci surgical system is most often used for minimally invasive soft tissue surgical procedures in order to reduce recovery time and minimize incision size. MAKO Surgical Corp. (NASDAQ:MAKO), on the other hand, provides the robotic arm interactive orthopedic system, also known as RIO, to enable tissue-sparing bone removal and allow orthopedics such as knee and hip replacement to fit into place. Traditional laparoscopic or joint replacement surgery has the potential to yield larger and less precise incision sizes, which can increase patients’ chances for acquiring an infection or, even worse, developing a VTE. As Intuitive Surgical, Inc. (NASDAQ:ISRG) and MAKO Surgical Corp. (NASDAQ:MAKO)’s robotic devices gain greater acceptance – which may take a while since teaching physicians how to use these devices is time-consuming — we may see a lessening in hospital-acquired VTE.