Medical Error: Third Leading Cause of Death

Medical error kills more people in the United States than accidents, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease or suicide.  Yet medical error is rarely talked about in those terms and as a result, doesn’t get the public attention it deserves.

This is the conclusion of a brand new study led by a John Hopkins doctor and just published in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).  Only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans than medical error.

Medical error that can lead to death range from surgical complications that go unrecognized to mix-ups with the doses or types of medications patients receive.

The study, which is based on an analysis of prior research, estimates that more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors.  On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official list, that would rank just behind heart disease and cancer, which each took about 600,000 lives in 2014, and in front of respiratory disease, which caused about 150,000 deaths.

The problem is that the CDC’s coding system doesn’t capture information about things like communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors, and poor judgment that cost lives, the study says.

The authors of the study call for adding a new question to death certificates specifically asking if a preventable complication of care contributed to death.  They reason that if we kept better track of medical error then the issue would get more of the public attention it deserves. And that, in turn, would lead to more resources devoted to patient safety.

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