Science

Medical errors are third leading cause of death in the US

By Pakinee Pooprasert

Who would have thought that going to the hospital could be as dangerous as getting heart disease? The very treatment that could be saving our lives may in fact, be killing us. A recent study shows that medical error is now the third leading cause of death in the United States.

The Johns Hopkins patient safety experts analysed medical death rate data over an eight-year period and calculated that more than 250,000 deaths per year are due to medical error in the US. This figure surpasses the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) third leading cause of death: respiratory disease, which killed around 150,000 people per year.

The researchers examined four separate studies that analysed medical death rate data from 2000 to 2008. They then used hospital admission rates from 2013 to extrapolate the fact that based on a total of 35,416,020 hospitalisations, 251,454 deaths were due to a medical error. This means that it contributes to roughly 9.5 per cent of all deaths each year in the United States.

The researchers explained that most of medical errors are not due to inherently bad doctors. Instead of addressing the issue with punishment or legal action, we must understand that most errors represent systematic problems, such as poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks and absence or underuse of safety nets.

How do other top chronic conditions measure up? According to the CDC, in 2013, 611,105 people died of heart disease, while 584,881 died of cancer and 149,205 died of chronic respiratory disease. The researchers’ newly calculated figure clearly puts medical errors behind cancer in terms of patients killed, but ahead of respiratory disease.

Paradoxically, medical errors are given very little media attention, overshadowed by top headlines about heart disease and cancer. “Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country’s research funding and public health priorities,” says Markary, professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an authority on health reform. “Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don’t appear on the list, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves.”

While it might be easy to point fingers to the doctors or surgeons who seem to be behind the huge death rate, we must remain conscientious and remember to exert caution.

“Unwarranted variation is endemic in healthcare. Developing consensus protocols that streamline the delivery of medicine and reduce variability can improve quality and lower costs in health care. More research on preventing medical errors from occurring is needed to address the problem,” concludes Makary.

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