10/08/2014 12:40 EDT | Updated 12/08/2014 05:59 EST

Eric Duncan's Death Shows the Gravity of Medical Errors


Thomas Eric Duncan, the patient who was sent home by the Texas hospital even while presenting with the early stages of the Ebola virus, has died.

Each day, families around the world face the tragedy of medical errors and hospital mistakes that end in death or extreme injury to the patient. Most often, there is no media interest and nothing happens as a result, despite the relentless search by families for answers and accountability. But in the case of Mr. Duncan and the global fear of Ebola, the world can now see the consequences of medical errors and the predictable pattern of excuses that follows: "we are only human;" "everyone makes mistakes;" "the nurse was tired;" "the doctor was busy;" "our software failed." Families often learn that the initial reason given for the error was not correct. It is not unusual for families never to be given the real reason, since cover-up is not uncommon when it comes to how hospitals handle errors.

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where Mr. Duncan sought emergency help, initially identified a software breakdown as the reason why the hospital missed a vital red flag and sent the patient home. Now it claims this was not the case, but won't say what the cause was. The resulting days lost in treating Mr. Duncan may well be shown to be determinative in his demise.

It has long been known that medical errors in the hospital setting account for the third leading cause of death in the United States and Canada. Very often those deaths are preventable. Yet little progress has been made in ending this epidemic of medical errors. It should not take the prospect of an Ebola panic and the tragic death of Mr. Duncan before the world wakes up and demands fundamental change on the part of healthcare leaders and public policy makers.

But the sad fact is that it probably will.


  • Ebola Symptoms: Fever
    Ebola Symptoms: Fever
    Ramonespelt via Getty Images
    Two to 21 days after becoming infected, the victim shows fever-like symptoms including a headache, joint pain, sore throat and what the NHS calls "intense muscle weakness".
    But the symptoms that follow make it much gorier than this 'man suffering first symptoms of Ebola' stock photo suggests.
  • Ebola Symptoms: Red eyes
    Ebola Symptoms: Red eyes
    ZOOM DOSSO via Getty Images
    A relatively early symptom can be red eyes. Doctors Without Borders says this does not alert people that they may have Ebola because it is relatively common.
  • Ebola Symptoms: Diarrhea
    Ebola Symptoms: Diarrhea
    POOL via Getty Images
    Victims suffer diarrhea (Ebola victim suffering from high fever and bloody diarrhea pictured) which one expert described as "severe and watery".
  • Ebola Symptoms: Vomiting
    Ebola Symptoms: Vomiting
    John Moore via Getty Images
    Victims also begin vomiting, including bringing up blood.
  • Ebola Symptoms: Rashes
    Ebola Symptoms: Rashes
    BSIP via Getty Images
    Victims also developed "measles-like" rashes, according to the WHO.
  • Ebola Symptoms: Massive bleeding
    Ebola Symptoms: Massive bleeding
    In one of the later symptoms exhibityed. patients often bloeed profusely from orifices. The US National Library of Medicine says they can bleed from the eyes, ears, and nose and also suffer gastrointestinal bleeding, from the mouth and rectum.