Medical Errors May Cause Over 250,000 Deaths a Year

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If medical error were considered a disease, a new study has found, it would be the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind only heart disease and cancer.

Medical error is not reported as a cause of death on death certificates, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has no “medical error” category in its annual report on deaths and mortality. But in this study, researchers defined medical error as any health care intervention that causes a preventable death.

For example, in one case a poorly performed diagnostic test caused a liver injury that led to cardiac arrest, but the cause of death was listed as cardiovascular. In fact, the cause was a medical error. Diagnostic errors, communication breakdowns, the failure to do necessary tests, medication dosage errors and other improper procedures were all considered medical errors in the study.

Using studies published since 1999, the researchers calculated a mean rate of death from medical error. Then they applied this rate to the yearly number of hospital admissions. In this way, they estimated that an average of 251,454 deaths per year in the United States are caused by medical error. The study is in BMJ.

“Humans will always make mistakes, and we shouldn’t expect them not to,” said the lead author, Dr. Martin A. Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins. “But we can engineer safe medical care to create the safety nets and protocols to address the human factor. Measuring the magnitude of the problem is the first step.”