Study Points to Medical Mistakes as 3rd Leading Cause of Death

An analysis published in the BMJ points to medical mistakes as the third-leading cause of death in the United States. According to the study, “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 study was conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and indicated that medical mistakes account for 251,000 deaths annually, or 700 deaths a day. The data show that this is more than the number of deaths caused by respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s, the data suggest.

The most frequently cited report on medical errors is a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, which called medical errors an “epidemic”. The study shed light on the role of medical errors in patient outcomes, finding that such events lead to 98,000 deaths a year. The authors of the current study refer to these numbers as “limited and outdated.”

The BMJ study was led by Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. He and his colleagues conducted the analysis hoping to start a discussion on how to prevent medical errors. The authors note that medical errors is an unpopular topic at health care facilities, which presents an obstacle for improving patient outcomes.

Furthermore, national trends are hard to identify because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not require reporting of errors when collecting data about deaths through billing codes. Makary says the CDC should update its vital statistics reporting requirements so that doctors will have to document any error resulting in a preventable death.

Makary and his colleagues note that mistakes are bound to happen at some point, but implementing strategies to address them can help save lives. “Human error is inevitable. Although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences. Strategies to reduce death from medical care should include three steps: making errors more visible when they occur so their effects can be intercepted; having remedies at hand to rescue patients and making errors less frequent by following principles that take human limitations into account.” the authors write.

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