A new study has put the risks of medical error back in the spotlight with a damning conclusion: preventable medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
The analysis, published this week in The BMJ, was conducted by John Hopkins University researchers who estimate that medical errors kill a staggering 251,000 people annually — more than respiratory diseases, accidents and strokes.
If you ask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top three killers in the U.S. remain heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases. But according to the John Hopkins researchers, the CDC doesn’t account for medical errors on death certificates. Instead data is tracked to maximize billing purposes — not generate national statistics. (The CDC has disputed the claim, saying that their ranking identifies the underlying cause of death that led the patient to seek treatment.)
To arrive at their estimate, the John Hopkins researchers pooled data from four other studies conducted between 2000 and 2008, which looked at millions of hospital admissions reports and which ones ultimately registered deaths due to errors related to a range of situations — from misdiagnoses to medication mix-ups or surgical complications.
While a few poor-performing doctors and nurses may be responsible for some of the deaths, the study also highlights the urgent need for wide-spread change to what appears to be a systematic problem. In the study the authors pointed to several culprits such as poorly coordinated care, insurance bureaucracy and a lack of adequate safety protocols.
The director of health care quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said that the medical world could take cues from the aviation industry, where patterns of behavior are more standardized and information about accidents is widely distributed to the public.
“Measuring the problem is the absolute first step,” he said. “Hospitals are currently investigating deaths where medical error could have been a cause, but they are under-resourced. What we need to do is study patterns nationally.”
This isn’t the first time studies have shown how dire the issue of medical errors has become. In 1999, a bombshell report called “To Err is Human” reported that medical professionals were contributing to 98,000 deaths annually. By 2013, other studies ratcheted the estimate up to between 210,000 and 440,000 lives lost each year.
In an open letter, the John Hopkins researchers called on the CDC to change the way it collects and reports vital health statistics. The authors also noted that more research on the issue is needed and more public attention should be paid to the problem to help generate more solutions and prevent error-related deaths.