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A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine estimates that more than 251,000 Americans die each year from medical errors. This accounts for roughly 10 percent of all deaths in the nation.
That would make medical errors the third leading cause of death in the United States, which further underscores the need for hospitals to make patient safety a priority. Up to ten percent of strokes and heart attacks are misdiagnosed each year in Emergency Rooms.
On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) official list, that would rank only behind heart disease and cancer, which each claimed about 600,000 lives in 2014. The recent estimate would put medical mistakes substantially in front of respiratory disease, which caused about 150,000 deaths.
The researchers urge the CDC to immediately add medical errors to its annual statistics on the leading causes of death in the US.
The exact number of deaths caused by medical errors and hospital negligence is unknown, largely because death certificate data doesn’t record communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors and poor judgment made by medical professionals. But, why is this important?
The Johns Hopkins authors say the inability to report the full impact of medical errors can create further limitations, including a lack of public attention and a failure to invest in research. Although the medical community cannot eliminate human error completely, they can make their errors more visible. Better locating the underlying issues will help to design safer systems and reduce fatal lapses in care.
A full analysis of these shortcomings was published recently on the BMJ Web site. The report identifies an “uncomfortable situation” for a doctor to report that a patient died from a medical error. For many physicians, this would seem like an admission of guilt.
However, as it stands, even if a doctor does list medical errors on a death certificate, they aren’t included in the published totals. The CDC’s published statistics count only the “underlying cause of death.” This is defined as the condition that led a person to seek treatment.
But this reporting failure undermines public health. If medical error is not counted in the United States’ health statistics, an important burden of health is underrepresented in our country.
Several medical mistakes commonly lead to a patient’s death. These range from surgical complications to patients receiving incorrect medications or doses. In compiling data, researchers define a “medical error” as due to the following:
• Error in judgment
• Error in skill
• Diagnostic error
• Failure in coordination of care
• A system defect
• Failure to rescue a patient from death
• A preventable adverse event.
Several independent studies confirm that medical errors are a leading cause of death. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), notes that adverse events occurred in almost 4 percent of recorded hospitalizations, and of those, about 14 percent led to death.
The NEJM study concludes that there is a substantial amount of injury to patients from medical management, and many of these injuries are the result of substandard care. Some estimates, published by the Journal of Patient Safety, count as many as 400,000 Americans dying annually from preventable hospital errors.
A 2004 report of the inpatient Medicare population estimated about 195,000 deaths a year were caused by medical error. Four years later, the US Department of Health and Human Services reported 180,000 deaths due to medical error a year among Medicare beneficiaries alone.
The recent John’s Hopkins study also mentions an important caveat: the 251,000 annual deaths from the literature is an “underestimate” because the studies did not include outpatient deaths.
Joe Lyon is a highly-rated Ohio hospital negligence attorney and Cincinnati medical error lawyer. Call 800.513.2403 for a free consultation.