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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - Medical Mistakes in U.S. Hospitals / Ways to Control Mosquitos / Coral in Hawaii - 2004-07-20

Broadcast: July 20, 2004


This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.


And I'm Sarah Long. Coming up this week: a report on efforts to reduce medical mistakes in American hospitals.


Some new ways to kill mosquito eggs in water.


And some underwater competition creates trouble for jewelry makers in Hawaii.



Five years ago, a study estimated the number of deaths each year caused by medical mistakes in hospitals in the United States. The estimate was between forty-four thousand and ninety-eight thousand -- or one in every two hundred patients.

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, did the study. The report was called "To Err Is Human." There was a lot of talk about the findings. Some experts called the estimates too high. Others called them too low.

The report called for changes designed to reduce the chance for mistakes to happen in medical care. Not all mistakes are deadly. The report told of a man who was supposed to have his right leg removed. Doctors cut off the left one by mistake.

The report said this kind of medical error is not unusual. It said many people are given the wrong medicine, or too much of the right medicine. New medicines with similar names are part of the problem. For example, Celebrex, Cerebyx and Celexa are three different medicines used to treat very different medical problems.


The Institute of Medicine report said changes in hospital policies could prevent many of these mistakes. The nineteen-ninety-nine study called for another examination later this year to measure progress.

Health care experts say a number of reforms have yet to take place. But they say hospitals have made improvements. Some are very simple. In fact, one of our friends here in the office discovered one for himself. Ten years ago he had an operation on his left knee. The operation was a success. But when he went into the hospital, no one asked him to confirm which knee required the operation.

Recently, he had the same operation on his right knee. This time, a hospital worker asked him which knee was to be repaired. He was asked to place his hand on that knee. Then he was given a pen. He was told to write “yes” on the right knee and "no" on the left one.

After that, he entered the operating room. The nurse and the doctor both asked him which knee was the one to be fixed. They wanted to make sure one last time that the right knee was the right knee.

This month a group that inspects American hospitals ordered that simple safety measures like these be required before all operations. That group is called "Jayco" -- the Joint Commission for Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.


Another effort to reduce mistakes involves information sharing among hospitals to improve the treatment of newborn babies. Each hospital can search the collected information for the best way to perform an operation or treat different problems in babies. Safety experts say information sharing can not only reduce mistakes but also improve the quality of medical care.

The Institute of Medicine report five years ago said most mistakes are caused by communication failures. These include mistakes with medicines. There are efforts to increase the use of computers in hospitals to avoid such mistakes. The goal is make sure patients get the correct medicines and in the correct amounts.

Traditionally, doctors have written their orders on paper. The handwriting can be difficult to read. But there is no such problem when the doctor enters the information into a computer instead.

The computer can also be used to avoid other mistakes. For example, it can warn if a medicine will form a dangerous combination with another drug already taken by the patient.


Safety experts hope that health care providers will learn from the mistakes of others -- and not just other health care providers.

It is often said that doctors can learn from pilots. The flight industry has done a lot of work to reduce mistakes. These efforts include training for pilots about the importance of teamwork. But teamwork is not the only solution. Efforts are also made to change systems where misunderstandings and mistakes are easily possible.



This is Science in the News, in VOA Special English.

Mosquitoes spread malaria and other diseases that kill or sicken millions of people a year, mostly in developing countries. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in water. These insects often lay their eggs in old tires or other places where rainwater has collected. This is why public health officials tell people not to leave standing water on their property. But an American man has designed some ways to use standing water to control mosquitoes.

Donald Hall of Virginia is a retired engineer. His inventions target mosquito eggs. One device pushes the water from a bird bath into a filter. The filter crushes the eggs that have been laid in the water. Some mosquitoes too young to fly are also killed.


Another invention by Mister Hall is a special outdoor tray that is filled with water. It serves as an inviting place for mosquitoes to lay their eggs. But the heat of the sun causes a coil device at the bottom of the tray to expand during daylight hours. So the eggs rise to the surface of the water. There they become hot and die. In the evening, the metal coil shrinks back under water, so more mosquitoes can lay their eggs.

Donald Hall says devices like these would be simple and low cost to make for developing countries. He recently received a United States patent to protect his ownership rights to his inventions. We have a link to his patent information on our Web site, voaspecialenglish-dot-com.



Scientists in Hawaii say a beautiful but unwelcome form of ocean life threatens the coral industry in that state. They say snowflake coral is invading an area between the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Lanai. It kills black coral by crowding it out in the competition for resources.

Coral is made up of colonies of small organisms called polyps. One end of a coral polyp has a mouth. The other end usually sticks to hard surfaces. The polyps of snowflake coral are white. So the colonies look like fields of snow.

These polyps form shapes like trees as they grow. Right now, most of the snowflake coral develops at depths as low as one-hundred-ten meters. That is below the level that divers can easily reach.

Snowflake coral connects itself to shells and other objects that live on black coral. Hawaii’s black coral is used to make jewelry and other objects. This industry is worth twenty-five to thirty million dollars to the state. Hawaiian coral rings, bracelets and necklaces are especially popular.


Sam Kahng is an ocean science researcher at the University of Hawaii. Last December, Mister Kahng did research with a submarine provided by the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory.

In the area he studied, he noted the presence of snowflake coral in or around all the colonies of black coral. He saw areas of black coral that had been killed by the snowflake coral. He said a single polyp of coral can produce as many as one hundred eggs. It can grow more than a centimeter a week.

Mister Kahng said many new colonies of snowflake coral are just starting to form. Snowflake coral grows much faster than black coral.

The invasive coral is not all bad. It does provides shelter for fish. Still, it competes with black coral and small fish for food supplies.


Snowflake coral was first seen in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor in nineteen-seventy two. Researchers say the coral polyps may have stuck to the bottoms of ships that sailed into Hawaiian waters from the Caribbean.

Several years ago, Sam Kahng explored the area between Maui and Lanai with Richard Grigg from the University of Hawaii. Mister Grigg is now partly retired. He says he does not think snowflake coral will kill all the black coral beds. But he says it reduces the black coral that can be harvested for jewelry. He also says it may reduce the growth of new black coral by killing older beds. These older beds make it possible for black coral to reproduce.



SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Nancy Steinbach, Paul Thompson and Jerilyn Watson. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. This is Sarah Long.


And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science, in Special English, on the Voice of America.