Do Celebrities Get Better Care?

They may get special treatment, but it might not be the kind they want. Nor would you.

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A thank-you to hospitalist Rob Wachter and his informative and readable new medical blog, Wachter's World, for tackling a question that might have occurred to some last week. When news broke that actor Dennis Quaid's newborn twins and another baby at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles (it's on the Honor Roll of "America's Best Hospitals") had accidentally received a dose of the blood thinner heparin that was 1,000 times the normal concentration, it would have been reasonably logical to think, "How could this have happened? Don't celebrities get special care?" (The hospital says the kids are fine.)

Yes, said Wachter, who as chief of the medical service at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center presumably knows what he's talking about. VIPs do get special care. "Every hospital I know keeps some sort of a VIP list, a tripwire to alert the organization of the arrival of a dignitary or billionaire," Wachter posted on his blog. "Even when there isn't a formal list, you can be sure that a single call to the CEO's office is more than enough to lift the velvet rope."

But he went on to explain that the special care rarely is special medical care. It's more like special handling—a personal greeter, an escort to appointments, a reserved parking space. Otherwise, celebs are treated pretty much the same as any other patient and are at no less risk of an inept slip. The Cedars-Sinai error may have occurred because heparin vials often look similar whether they contain low or high concentrations. (The chief medical officer quickly put out a statement, which Wachter wryly commented "may win this year's Oscar for fastest public apology.")

Gold-plated medical care for VIPs, noted Wachter, can even backfire when many superspecialists descend on a patient without a coordinated plan, when important tests are minimized if they are intrusive or uncomfortable or, at the other extreme, when every possible test, worthwhile or not, is ordered. "There is no evidence that Dennis Quaid's kids were harmed because they hail from a VIP bloodline," wrote Wachter, "but it wouldn't surprise me if it was a causative factor. Everybody just tries a bit too hard, and in doing so, they throw off their natural rhythm."

Just one more reason I'm glad I'm not a celebrity.

Oh, I almost forgot. Surfeited with leftover stuffing and feeling a smidgen less combative than usual after taking last week off, I have an early Hanukkah or Christmas present for you: Starting now, you can publicly supplement my insights with your own. Along with two of my blogging colleagues—Ben Harder ("Thinking Harder") and James Pethokoukis ("Capital Commerce")—I'll be posting your comments. I won't publish vulgarity or ad hominem attacks, but I don't think discussions of safe, high-quality medical care attract many people who would cross the line anyway. Please add your voice to what's been a one-man choir.