For example the waiting time target in a hospital can be met if enough patients are killed off quickly so freeing up beds. However hitting the waiting time target in that way is rather missing the point of healthcare!

  • The phrase "close but no cigar" comes to mind, although it's rather informal and might not mean exactly what you want. Might be a good place to start a search for synonyms though. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 13:28
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    "The Operation Was a Success, but the Patient Died" Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 13:48
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    dilbert.com/strips/comic/1995-11-13 Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 14:44
  • also worthy of note is that there is a perverse incentive at play here - dead people don't take up beds!
    – penguat
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 17:19
  • Wouldn't "effective" vs. "efficient" cover this? Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 10:40

17 Answers 17


I think one word which describes this kind of thinking is shortsighted:

lacking foresight or scope; a short view of the problem; "shortsighted policies"; "shortsighted critics derided the plan"; "myopic thinking"

In Calif. panel rejects new offshore oil drilling (2009), the situation is described in which the State Lands Commission rejected a proposal that could have led to the first new oil-drilling project off the California coast in 40 years.

...supporters...[said drilling] would benefit the region and help the cash-strapped state. Opponents, however, argued the plan was shortsighted. The vote came the day after the 40th anniversary of a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara that coated miles of beaches with oil and killed dolphins, seals and thousands of birds. The spill helped lead to the Clean Water Act and a moratorium on offshore drilling, galvanizing the modern environmental movement.

Unforesightful is a less elegant word for the same phenomenon.

Similarly, myopic, though technically a visual defect in which distant objects appear blurred, can be

lack of discernment or long-range perspective in thinking or planning

These are single words. A common idiom, though, is can't see the forest for the trees.

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    I think the forest for the trees phrase is the best idiom, but since the OP specifically asked for one-word answers, then shortsighted or myopic fits best (only able to see the details, not the big picture).
    – techturtle
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 21:12

A Pyrrhic victory (from the Pyrrhic War of Ancient Greece and Rome) is when you win the battle at such high cost that it would have been better to lose. The term used to be more popular during a more classics-oriented era, but I think it would be ideal to repurpose into a modern adjective.

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    This is not an appropriate phrase, since a Pyrrhic victory would impose costs on those who were victorious. In the stated situation, those costs are imposed on others.
    – Xerxes
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 19:32
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    @Xerxes - it is rather shortsighted to assume that in the stated scenario, not everyone (including the hospital administrators wishing to hit a waiting time target) would be hurt, as they most certainly would be. It would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed. A Pyrrhic victory is a victory of sorts, meaning that it did cost their foes though, perhaps moreso, the victors. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 21:25
  • Much like the world wars then, I guess Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 8:34
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    Managing hospital beds isn't a one-time event like a war or battle, and there are no victors. We're talking about a suboptimal solution to an ongoing process, so I don't think Pyrrhic victory really works well here. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 19:45
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    "Pyrrhic victory" was my first thought when reading the question. I disagree that the "victory" in the phrase must refer exclusively to "one-time events." Making more hospitable beds available would generally be considered a victory of sorts, so I think the phrase is appropriate (and appropriately ironic). Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 21:52

Not a single word but there is a phrase related:

the cure is worse than the disease

(figuratively) The solution or proposed solution to a problem produces a worse net result than the problem does (or threatens a non-negligible risk of doing so), especially via unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences can be roughly grouped into three types:

  • A positive, unexpected benefit (usually referred to as luck, serendipity or a windfall).
  • A negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy

    (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis).

  • A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse)

Also, this phrase is related to your example:

Throw out the baby with the bath water is an idiomatic expression and a concept used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.

A slightly different explanation suggests that this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous because of excessive zeal. In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water.

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    You might want to mention the law of unintended consequences more directly, in addition to the brief mention in your quote. I was thinking of posting it myself, but I think it'd be a better addition to your answer. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 2:30
  • @Bradd: Thanks for reminding. Added details about unintended consequences.
    – ermanen
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 4:39

"Gaming the system" reflects the idea that a nominal optimization of the system is not the one desired by those who set up the system. It adds the connotation that the one doing the gaming is doing so for their own benefit, perhaps because it's easier than succeeding legitimately.

  • +1 It's a very common phrase in business. Whenever you create an incentive system, people naturally work to maximize the payoff (game the system). You try to align your incentive system with your real goal, but that is sometimes elusive.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 17:35
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    Gaming the system is knowingly cheating or taking shortcuts you know are wrong, in order to achieve some desired end ("the ends justify the means"). I think the OP's example is more along the lines of "perverse incentives" or "unintended consequences".
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 18:40
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    @PhilPerry: "perverse incentives" is pretty good, but it describes the other side. That is, what the target setters are doing rather than the target hitters.
    – Xerxes
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 6:49
  • And specifically, I'd say that killing patients to free beds is indeed "knowingly cheating or taking shortcuts you know are wrong", in order to "achieve some desired end" of hitting the waiting-time targets. Gaming the system is an understatement for the given example (you could call it "serial murder"), but does describe that aspect of the situation. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 10:34
  • Gaming the system, as I understand it, is using tactics which are legal (or at worst, in a gray area). Think of the referenced Dilbert comic, or various black/gray hat SEO tactics (e.g., keyword stuffing). Deliberately killing patients would cross the line into out-and-out illegality, far beyond "gaming".
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 13:19

It sounds like a solution like Procrustes used to do with his bed. In Greek myth he would take travellers and fit them on his bed. If they were too long, he would hack off their head and feet. If too short, he would use the torture rack to stretch them to fit.

So, a Procrustean Solution fits the example, but sadly classical education isn't widespread enough that most will understand the reference.

  • Very interesting myth, but it sounds like a metaphore more than an actual English expression. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 8:42
  • "You made the bed, you sleep in it" I believe is derived from the Procrustean myth. However, I don't see it as really fitting what the OP was after.
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 13:21

For trying to focus too much on solving small details without paying attention to the bigger picture, there's "not seeing the forest for the trees". Though this only applies in cases where the details are being focused on, but the larger picture ignored.


Another military phrase that I also hear in sports. Won the battle but lost the war.


Another phrase not mentioned: defeating the purpose.

Per your example, killing sick patients to improve metrics defeats the purpose of having a metric in the first place - to improve healthcare.


The Cobra effect

occurs when an attempted solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse

The name comes from an anecdotal tale of a government attempting to reduce cobra numbers by offering a bounty for dead cobras; the net effect was an increase in cobra numbers, as enterprising folk became cobra breeders in order to gain more bounty.

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    And when they discontinued the bounty, disappointed breeders just turned their charges loose. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 23:59
  • Great answer! There is an episode of the Freakonomics podcast that covers this topic. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 17:39

The answer is rather simple.

This is described by the word pointless which describes something that happens but it is rather not very helpful.

I hope my answer is helpful and not pointless.

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    It is not pointless, as it stops the hospital getting fined!
    – Ian
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 16:35

The question you're asking relates to a business process: managing a constrained resource (i.e. hospital beds). The moral aspect of killing people aside, in the world of process science and business this type of "solution" is known as a local optimization.

People that don't have a global picture of how an entire system or process work often times make the best decision for an single part, but this might not be the best decision overall. Someone has to have a view of the entire process or system to make global optimizations. Approaching problems from this aspect is often referred to as systems thinking.


The solution is "technically correct", the best kind of correct.

Sometimes used sarcastically when a statement is not wrong but the cause or reasoning behind it is unexpected or questionable.


The solution described is self-defeating.



"Hospital's misdirected attempt to free beds kills patients"


How about the word "misguided"?


A moral hazard is a situation that leads to this kind of problem, where people are rewarded for making decisions that put other people at risk. The resulting situation typically features unintended consequences.

  • Moral Hazard is a bit off topic and unintended consequences has already been given. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 8:43
  • @ArlaudPierre Unintended consequences wasn't given as an answer when I posted it; I was the person who suggested that ermanen add it! Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 17:39

How about:

It's About the Journey, not the Destination

which might be too philosophical for the hospital scenario. But it describe specifically the idea / experience of something is the point, not the goal...

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    No, that really misses the point of what the example gets at. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 13:55
  • Yep, having a whole bunch of patients suddenly die certainly sounds like an exciting journey. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 22:09

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