Johns Hopkins Researchers Examine Deaths Linked to Medical Errors

A study published in the BMJ looks at the frequency of “medical errors” in relation to patient death. The analysis, conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, found that such errors may be the third-leading cause of death in the United States. The data indicates that medical errors lead to 251,000 deaths each year, more than the number of lives claimed by respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

The study was led by Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said errors include everything from poor provider care to systemic flaws such as communication issues between departments. “It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care,” he said, according to Washington Post.

Medical errors have not always been a publicized topic. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published a report calling medical errors an “epidemic”, which shocked the medical community and prompted a discussion about how to improve the situation. The report estimated that medical errors accounted for 98,000 deaths a year.

The BMJ study looked at data from four large studies, including those conducted by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality from 2000 to 2008. According to the study, data indicate that medical errors lead to 251,000 deaths a year; this is equivalent to 700 deaths a day and accounts for 9.5 percent of all deaths each year in the country.

The researchers say they conducted the study in an effort raise awareness about a problem that needs further addressing. Makary and co-author Michael Daniel say patient safety is emphasized by providers and health care facilities, but few cite actual examples of medical errors that led to harm. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not require reporting of errors when collecting data about deaths through billing codes; this prevents researchers from being able to identify trends at the national level.

Makary wants the CDC to update its vital statistics reporting requirements so that doctors will have to document any error resulting in a preventable death. “We all know how common it is,” he said. “We also know how infrequently it’s openly discussed.”

“Measuring the problem is the absolute first step,” said Makary, according to Washington Post. “Hospitals are currently investigating deaths where medical error could have been a cause, but they are underresourced. What we need to do is study patterns nationally.”

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