Science

Medical errors kill 250,000 Americans a year; now 3rd leading cause of death

By | May 05, 2016 07:31 PM EDT
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Morgue(Photo : Getty Images)

The gruesome epidemic called medical errors that takes the lives of 700 American patients a day brings to mind a grim joke about the difference between an airline pilot and a doctor.

The difference is that airline pilots are killed by their mistakes. Doctors bury their mistakes.

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And doctors in hospitals and healthcare facilities across the United States are burying their mistakes in record numbers, said a study recently published in The BMJ, a weekly peer-reviewed medical journal published in the United Kingdom.

The study reveals that "medical errors" in hospitals and other healthcare facilities are now so incredibly common they might be the third leading cause of death in the US after heart disease and cancer.

The number of preventable deaths is staggering: 251,500 Americans dead annually. Put in another way, that's 700 patients that shouldn't have died if doctors and healthcare workers charged with their care were on top of their game.

The total number of deaths is equivalent to 9.5 percent of all deaths annually in the US. By way of comparison, 292,000 American soldiers were killed in action during World War 2.

The term medical errors includes a gamut of causes ranging from bad doctors to more systemic issues such as communication breakdowns when patients are handed off from one department to another, said Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the study. Makary co-authored the study Michael Daniel, also from Johns Hopkins.

"It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care," Makary said.

The death toll from medical errors is even higher than it was at the close of the 20th century. In 1999, preventable medical errors were described as an "epidemic" by an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report.

Makary's study combines data from the IOM report and other major ones, including those from the Health and Human Services Department's Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality from 2000 to 2008.

Makary said he and Daniel conducted the study to shed more light on a problem many hospitals and healthcare facilities try to avoid talking about.

Makary suggested the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should update its vital statistics reporting requirements so physicians are required report if there was any error that led to a preventable death.

"We all know how common it is," Makary said. "We also know how infrequently it's openly discussed."

Makary and Daniel, however, believe the death toll of 251,500 is much higher since deaths at home and nursing home deaths are not counted in that total.

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