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Doctors kill more people than guns: urban legend or fact? (update 1)

Thursday, November 30, 2006 by: Ben Kage
Tags: gun control, doctor errors, medical mistakes

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A popular message circulating the internet claims that "guns don't kill people, doctors do," based on statistics that theoretically show that doctors are responsible for more accidental deaths every year than firearms. Independent research by NewsTarget staff shows that this claim is based on a logical fallacy of comparing apples and oranges, but according to the hard statistics, doctors do indeed kill more people than guns.

The message, which sometimes says that doctors kill more people than guns and traffic accidents combined, has been circulating the internet for years. Like many urban legends that cross the internet, it has a lot of "facts" for its readers, but it is unlike most urban legends in that it quotes a source: "Statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services." The message was even recounted in an article by Nathan Tabor. The letter claims that:

-- There are 700,000 physicians in the United States.
-- There are 120,000 accidental deaths in the United States caused by physicians every year, and the accidental death percentage per physician is 0.171.
-- There are 80 million gun owners in the United States.
-- There are 1,500 accidental deaths from guns every year, regardless of age group, and the accidental death percentage per gun owner is 0.0000188.

This means, the letter points out, that doctors are 9,000 times more deadly than gun owners.

Tabor's reason for pointing out these statistics seems to be the endorsement of second amendment rights, but the stats have turned the heads of many people, regardless of their stance on gun control. The claim has been reprinted across the internet on sites such as Rense.com, and other sites that warn of the dangers of modern medicine. NewsTarget staff members were unable to find DHHS figures that either supported or debunked the urban legend's claims. Such figures are hard to compare anyway, as the internet anti-chain-letter site BreakTheChain.org points out with responses gathered from the public:

-- Most people see doctors when their health is already poor, so that has to be considered a factor in any doctor-related deaths, accidental or otherwise.
-- Some people will never interact with a gun in their lifetime, but very few people will never see a doctor. This means that doctors could be more lethal simply due to a greater chance of public exposure to them.

As you can see, the doubts raised by these factors mean the statistics cannot be fairly compared, however NewsTarget's stance is that conventional medicine is still one of the top causes of death in the United States. Specifically, information obtained by Death by Medicine shows that an estimated 106,000 people die from adverse drug effects -- from properly prescribed drugs -- every year, and approximately 98,000 die annually from some sort of error by medical staff. Compare this to statistics from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Centers for Disease control for the year 2004, which show an estimated 16,137 people were victims of homicide (not just firearm murders) in the United States.

Most people can agree that doctors and guns can both be lethal. But comparing doctor deaths with gun deaths seems odd. For one thing, the intention is different. Doctors are usually trying to save patients, not kill them. Violent criminals who might use guns in committing a crime, however, often do have the intention of causing physical harm. Doctors may be dangerous through their ignorance or incompetence, but they are not actually out to kill anyone.

[Ed. Note: What about doctors who are armed? Gunpoint medicine is the use of firearms to force patients to undergo procedures like chemotherapy. I've covered it in the Abraham Cherrix articles. If we allow people with guns to enforce the dangerous practices of conventional medicine, then we have the worst of both worlds: ignorant doctors backed by guns.]

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