Iatrogenic Illness

Doctors are supposed to cure sickness, but sometimes they cause it by accident. Iatrogenic illness refers to diseases picked up over the course of treatment, either as a result of the treatment itself, by a lapse on the doctor’s part, or as a general consequence of being in a place such as a doctor’s office or hospital where there are a lot of sick people. Most of the time, these are easily treated, but sometimes they can be more dangerous than the condition that sent the patient to the doctor in the first place, and, in some cases, they can even be fatal.

For example, many drug addicts—particularly those with prescription medicine addictions—first got that habit while recovering from disease or injury. This was a one time a major cause of heroin addiction. Heroin is related chemically to painkillers such as morphine, and during the Vietnam War, soldiers who were given morphine for pin relief occasionally became heroin addicts. Users of Oxycontin, which is also in the same family, are often legitimately in pain at the beginning. While doctors use painkillers more judiciously nowadays, the problem remains.

Another problem patients sometimes encounter is inadvertent infection by doctors and other personnel. While most medical professionals, follow strict sanitation regimens, sometimes mistakes happen, or pathogens that cause disease get through the procedures. Prions, which cause Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, are notorious for being difficult to defeat by cleaning. Even so, iatrogenic Creutzfeld-Jakob accounts for only a tiny percentage of cases of that disorder. Another danger of hospital care is sepsis. Sepsis is caused by severe infection, and so can easily occur during surgery or when medical appliances, such as catheters and PICC lines, provide bacteria and viruses with an entry route into the body.

It is occasionally claimed that iatrogenic disease is among the most common causes of death. One number frequently cited is 783,936 iatrogenic deaths each year. This number, however is misleading. "Iatrogenic" in this context of that statistic means little more than that the patient’s death was directly caused by medical intervention; however, often that intervention was a last resort for a patient who was otherwise inevitably doomed. While iatrogenesis may be a relatively common cause of death in hospitals, it remains quite low overall. It is merely that people in hospitals are the ones receiving medical attention in the first place.

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