Medical Errors are Third Leading Cause of Death in United States

New research has found that medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, only behind heart disease and cancer.

Medical error has been defined as an unintended act (either of omission or commission) or one that does not achieve its intended outcome, the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended (an error of execution), the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim (an error of planning), or a deviation from the process of care that may or may not cause harm to the patient.

The new study, conducted by doctors from Johns Hopkins, estimates a mean rate of death from medical error of over 250,000 deaths per year from 1999 to 2013, which far exceeds previous estimates. This estimate suggests that medical error accounts for approximately ten percent of all deaths in the United States each year. The authors of the study believe the number is likely much higher, as home and nursing home deaths are not counted in that total.

The study indicates that previous underestimates are the result of inaccurate data. Specifically, cause of death in death certificates currently have to match those billing codes used by the insurance industry. Insurance billing codes are designed to maximize billing, not necessary to accurately capture medical error.

Dr. Martin Makary, who helped lead the study, believes many hospitals don't invest in technology that could prevent errors because the hospitals don't always realize how big the problem is and don't make it a priority.

Dr. Makary is calling for reforms that would improve the reporting of medical errors, which in turn could inform prevention efforts. In a letter dated May 1, he asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which gathers births, deaths and other vital statistics, to rank medical errors on the list of leading causes of death. The letter also asked CDC to alter death certificates so that doctors, medical examiners and coroners can routinely report medical errors that contribute to a patient's death.

A link to the study can be found here.


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