The airline industry is in turmoil about the grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The Federal Aviation Administration took pre-emptive action because of fears that the lithium batteries could overheat and cause fires. Although no plane has crashed and no one has died, Dreamliners won’t fly until this problem is resolved.

If only the country paid as much attention to health care safety as to aviation safety. Plane crashes have become rare because the airline industry changed its culture to put safety first.

In health care, however, patient safety does not get the attention it deserves. Too many patients die every day from avoidable mistakes. Some experts estimate that the death count is equivalent to three jumbo jets crashing every day. Because TV cameras do not capture the carnage of health care errors, the problem is invisible.

It shouldn’t be. A study published in the medical journal Surgery (online, Dec. 18, 2012) analyzed so-called “never events” – things that are never supposed to happen, like an operation on the wrong body part or the wrong patient. Leaving an instrument in the patient at the close of an operation is another type of never event.

The authors analyzed malpractice cases between 1990 and 2010. They concluded, “Surgical never events are costly to the health care system and are associated with serious harm to patients.”

It seems to us that 21st century hospitals should have systems in place to prevent such mistakes. Some do; nevertheless, roughly 40 times a week in the U.S. a sponge or a towel is left inside a patient. About 20 times a week the wrong side or the wrong body part is operated on. And the wrong operation is performed about as often. At least 4,000 never events occur in the U.S. each year. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Many such events don’t make it to a malpractice case.

One reason is that medical errors aren’t often disclosed. There is no mandatory reporting system, and voluntary reporting falls short.

A recent study of medication error reporting in hospitals concluded that, “When errors occur, patients and their caregivers are rarely informed” (Critical Care Medicine online, Dec. 20, 2012).

Most hospitals have an official policy encouraging physicians and other health care providers to tell patients and families about errors. But in this recent study, barely 2 percent of medication mistakes were revealed.

If a pilot makes an error or has a “near miss,” that must be reported immediately. Such events are used by the entire industry to avoid similar problems and improve aviation safety. Health care has no similar system, so mistakes are repeated in hospitals around the country.

This is why patients and their families must be on guard against likely errors, whether in the doctor’s office or the operating suite. To learn more about how to protect your loved ones, you may want to read our book “Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them.” It is available in bookstores, libraries and online at

Patient vigilance can go only so far. We look forward to the day when going to the hospital will be as safe as getting on a plane.