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Medical Errors Are Now The Third Biggest Killer Of Americans

“It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care.”

Image Via CC (Credit: Phalinn Ooi)

It turns out health care providers are as susceptible to mistakes as everyone else. A new study published in the BMJ on Tuesday found “medical errors” in hospitals and similar facilities to be the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind only heart disease and cancer.

Medical errors cause 251,000 patients to lose their lives every year—which equates to 700 deaths per day and 9.5 percent of all deaths in the U.S. annually—and causes run the gambit from communication failures among departments for patients with systemic issues to poor-quality doctors. “It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care,” lead researcher Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells The Washington Post.

Makary and co-author Michael Daniel, also from Johns Hopkins, carried out the analysis to shed light on an issue hospitals and health care facilities have a long history of sweeping under the rug. “We all know how common it is,” he says. “We also know how infrequently it’s openly discussed.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says Makary, should require physicians to report any errors that led to a preventable death. The agency’s current medical coding system is designed to maximize billing for physician services, not collect health statistics. An Institute of Medicine report was released in 1999 calling medical errors an “epidemic”; it sparked discussion within the medical establishment, but minimal change. The only area in which health care facilities have shown improvement are hospital-acquired infections.

The lack of progress could very well be attributed to the absence of standardization in the way health care is delivered, says Kenneth Sands, who directs health care quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. “There has just been a higher degree of tolerance for variability in practice than you would see in other industries,” he notes.

Makary says the medical establishment should take a hint from the airline industry, namely how the Federal Aviation Administration approaches errors. When a pilot makes a mistake, the details surrounding the investigation are disseminated to the entire global aviation community. “Measuring the problem is the absolute first step. Hospitals are currently investigating deaths where medical error could have been a cause, but they are under-resourced,” he says. “What we need to do is study patterns nationally.”

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