The '80s are the decade in which it became impossible to be too paranoid. In addition to all the previously exposed terrors and worries of modern life, WRC consumer reporter Lea Thompson has found shockingly low standards of accuracy and workmanship among facilities that perform crucial medical laboratory tests.
Thompson's disquietingly hard-hitting reports were aired on recent editions of WRC's evening news and have now been compiled, with some updating, into the half-hour news special "Deadly Mistakes," at 7:30 tonight on Channel 4.
A case is convincingly built that while most medical laboratories "do a good job," an unconscionable number have made serious, even fatal, errors.
One woman, whose lab tests gave her a clean bill of health, was later found to have cervical cancer; the tests were read incorrectly and by the time the accurate diagnosis was made, it was too late for surgery. She is seen in tearful remarks she made on camera and, Thompson grimly reports, died Nov. 14.
Another woman was declared by her lab tests to have contracted AIDS, "but it was all a mistake." The woman is still in therapy trying to mitigate the trauma. Case after case of misdiagnosis -- of prostate cancer, gonorrhea and other diseases -- is documented.
Poor quality control at the labs is blamed. The regulatory system that supposedly polices the labs is "spotty at best, sometimes nonexistent," Thompson reports. Only 13 states routinely inspect the smaller medical labs in doctors' offices. Thompson says Maryland and the District have minimal inspections but are at least better than Virginia, which has none.
In Virginia, Thompson says, hairdressers must go through more extensive training than the technologists who make life-or-death analyses in medical labs.
The report, which Thompson wrote and produced with Rick Nelson, is crammed tight with facts, accusations and the agonized testimony of victims. It seems odd that no lawsuits are mentioned; some must have been filed against errant labs.
At the end of the half hour, there's reaction from those who saw Thompson's investigative series when it first aired on "News 4." Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) says he plans hearings on the issue in the spring. D.C. Council member John Wilson says "I sat in front of my TV and was completely shocked" when he saw the reports.
The federal government has actually cut back on inspection of the labs and enforcement of standards, Thompson says -- another example of how the Reagan administration got the government out of our lives. People are beginning to realize that's not always such a great idea.