Horrifying Study Says Medical Errors Could Be the Third Leading Cause of Death

By
Image
Photo: Sam Edwards

Johns Hopkins University researchers estimate that more than 250,000 Americans die each year as the result of medical errors, which would rank them behind only heart disease and cancer as a cause of death.

For an analysis published in the journal BMJ, researchers examined four big studies between 2000 and 2008 that looked for medical errors as the cause of death in Medicare claims and data from 13 other hospitals. Then they extrapolated the data to get an estimate based on the size of the U.S. population.

The estimate accounts for the rare bad doctor, sure, but also accidents and miscommunications that can happen when patients are passed to new doctors or departments. A 1999 report estimated the number of deaths at 98,000 per year. Other studies have placed the number between 200,000 and 400,000. Sadly, the number of annual injuries from medical error is likely much higher. One doctor said the only thing that’s gotten better since that initial report is a decline in infections people get during a hospital stay.

Lead author and Johns Hopkins professor of surgery Martin Makary told the Washington Post: “We all know how common it is. We also know how infrequently it’s openly discussed.” The point of the study is to get people talking about this problem and to increase funding and research to figure out better ways to address it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not require health-care providers to report errors via billing codes when someone dies, so it’s hard to track on a national level. The study authors wrote an open letter asking the CDC to change this, and include medical error on its list of leading causes of death.

For some context: Heart disease kills 615,000 Americans yearly and cancer claims the lives of more than 590,000, so, sorry, worrywarts, you actually do still have to go to the doctor, and to the hospital when necessary. Experts recommend having a family member or caregiver at the hospital to advocate for you.