Medical Error May Be America’s Third Leading Cause of Death

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Here's something we didn't see coming: According to The Washington Post, researchers estimate that medical error is our nation’s third leading cause of death, following cancer and heart disease. We say “estimate,” because they don’t know for sure; the U.S. doesn’t keep track of deaths by medical error. The researchers published their report in the British Medical Journal this week.

The words “medical error” encompass many things, from giving a patient too much medication to leaving a surgical sponge inside someone’s body. “While many errors are non-consequential, an error can end the life of someone with a long life expectancy or accelerate an imminent death,” the authors write.

They describe the case of a young woman who received an organ transplant and was on the path to recovery when she began feeling unwell. She returned to the hospital, where staff performed a number of unnecessary and invasive tests. During one test, a needle grazed her liver, which led to a pseudoaneurysm, which killed her. The hospital listed her cause of death as “cardiovascular.”

The most commonly cited assessment of national death-by-medical-error data was conducted by the Institute of Medicine nearly 20 years ago in 1999. That report estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans were dying from medical errors every year. Even as that report was being drafted, other scientists argued that the numbers were much higher.

Co-authors and Johns Hopkins University of Medicine researchers Martin Makary and Michael Daniel used data from these reports and many others to estimate the percent of hospital patients who died due to medical errors. They then applied that percentage to the number of people admitted to hospitals in 2013 and learned that between 210,000 to 400,000 of those people would have experienced fatal medical errors.

And those are just the people in the hospital. There have been no studies examining the rate of medical error deaths at home, at doctor’s offices, or in nursing homes and other residential treatment facilities. The absence of this data is not just problematic; it’s also unscientific.

“Sound scientific methods, beginning with an assessment of the problem, are critical to approaching any health threat to patients,” the authors write. “The problem of medical error should not be exempt from this scientific approach.”

Still, they recognize that doctors, nurses, and other practitioners are human, and that, like all of us, they will make mistakes. They write, “Although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences.”

[h/t The Washington Post]