Replacing Medical Errors, COVID-19 Becomes the 3rd-Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

man laying on hospital bed with ventilator

As tragic as it is, Americans have grown quite used to seeing, reading, and hearing about the massive daily death toll caused by COVID-19, which over the last two weeks has averaged more than a whopping 2,200 per day, according to Johns Hopkins data.

As winter arrives, roughly 300,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Just nine months into the pandemic, and the United States has already zoomed right past the number of deaths caused by medical errors — making COVID-19 the new third-leading cause of death, right after heart disease and cancer, at numbers 1 and 2 respectively, and right before medical errors, at number 4.

An updated look at the top-5 leading causes of death in the U.S. would show:

RankCauseNumber of Deaths/Year
1Heart Disease655,381
4Medical Errors251,000
5Accidents (unintentional injuries)167,127

*Based on data retrieved at 1PM on 12.14.20 from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

It is worth noting that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still does not officially recognize medical errors as a leading cause of death in the U.S., in spite of numerous studies identifying the death toll to be somewhere in the range of 251,000 and 440,000 deaths annually.

Determining the exact criteria for a medical-error-related death is an ongoing process and one of several reasons why medical errors have not yet been federally recognized as a leading cause of death in the United States.

Many experts disagree with the CDC’s decision not to recognize the trend, and dismiss it as a government-led effort to shield the medical industry, including doctors, hospitals, medical facilities, and drug and device companies, from bad PR.

Medical Errors: Now the 4th-Leading Cause of Death in America

It came as a shock to many when the now-famous Johns Hopkins study first identified the concerning trend of 251,000 medical-error-related deaths in the United States each year. Such an enormous number seemed implausible — in part because the term “medical error” was largely unfamiliar to the majority of Americans who don’t visit the hospital more than 2-4 times a year.

However, the lead author of the study, Martin Makary, M.D., M.P.H., pointed to an inadequacy in the way that the CDC collects its national health statistics, noting that the federal agency often “fails to classify medical errors separately on the death certificate.”

Makary and his team have now been advocating for years for updated criteria for classifying deaths on death certificates — a move that would more accurately capture the true toll of medical errors. Makary stated,

“Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven’t been recognized in any standardized method for collecting national statistics. The medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used.”

The Johns Hopkins study also notes that the CDC has not updated the billing codes it uses to classify deaths since 1949, making the federal government’s way of tallying annual deaths 71-years outdated. In the 1940s and 50s, diagnostic mistakes and medical mistakes were not widely seen as something that could lead to a person’s death.

There are other, more-pressing concerns that go along with the way the CDC reports the top-ranking deaths in the United States. Makary continued,

“Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country’s research funding and public health priorities. Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don’t appear on the list, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves.”

Medical errors will only remain steady or increase while the healthcare industry seeks funding to better streamline processes, improve patient hand-offs, and improve conditions for both patients and doctors.

How Medical Errors Stack Up Next to COVID-19

If Johns Hopkins’s data is to be believed — and it should — 688 Americans die each day from a preventable medical mistake made by a doctor or medical staff.

That roughly equates to 1 death every 2 minutes.

To get a sense of how overwhelming COVID-19 deaths are at their current clip, around 92 Americans are dying every single hour from COVID-19, or 1 death every 90 seconds.

While the vaccine rollout has begun, many Americans will not be vaccinated until late spring or early summer 2021. By the time the United States reaches “herd immunity,” which the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, estimates will be achieved by fall 2021, it’s possible that more than half a million Americans will have died from the disease.

When it comes to medical errors, the most common mistakes made by doctors that lead to death include:

  • Misdiagnosis
  • Delayed Diagnosis
  • Medication error
  • Infection
  • Misuse of antibiotics
  • Premature patient discharge

Identified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as “root causes” of medical-error-related deaths, the following factors often lead to errors committed by medical professionals:

  • Communication problems: Miscommunication between hospital staff, between hospital divisions, or between hospitals.
  • Inadequate information flow: Necessary information may not follow the patient upon transfer to another service or discharge.
  • Human error: Failures in following policies, guidelines, protocols, and processes, including poor documentation and labeling of samples and specimens.
  • Patient-related issues: Wrong patient identification, partial or incomplete patient assessment, and failure to obtain consent.
  • Staffing patterns and workflow: Problems resulting from overworked and tired healthcare workers, poor supervision, and inadequate staffing.
  • Technological failures: Medical device failures, including poorly designed medical devices or equipment and/or improper medical device handling or implantation.
  • Inadequate policies and procedures: Problems in the process of care are often traced to poorly documented, non-existent, or clinically inadequate procedures.

Given the various circumstances that can produce medical errors, tracking them can be exceedingly difficult. While there certainly needs to be increased transparency on the part of doctors and hospitals, the system itself needs updating to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Preventing Medical Mistakes in the 21st Century

State-of-the-art medical technologies are truly things to marvel at — with present technology, a world-class surgeon in Boston can now operate, using remote access to a surgical machine, on a patient located in a different state.

But with advances in technology come evolving risks. Necessary transitions need to occur in local hospitals to align new technologies with the older ways of maintaining patient information and data.

Stubbornly, some medical records are still being transitioned into digital format. Some information gets shared right away, while other information may need to be faxed over or mailed — literally. The time gap can prove crucial when lives are on the line.

Other things, like protocols for reporting medical mistakes and streamlining disciplinary actions for doctors who notoriously make mistakes need to be uniform across the country so that more patients are protected from fatal errors in hospital and medical settings.

Progress is being made, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that progress can feel painfully slow. The end to the pandemic may appear to be mere months on the horizon, but the end to medical errors that result in death — that may still be years in the future. And, so long as the healthcare industry remains stagnant, it will be.

In the meantime, patient advocates and non-profit organizations such as Patient Safety America recommend that everyone remains vigilant whenever in a hospital or diagnostic setting.

To lower your risk of experiencing a medical error, it’s recommended to:

  • Ask questions
  • Seek a second opinion
  • Bring along an advocate, such as a partner or loved one
Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

The Sokolove Law Content Team is made up of writers, editors, and journalists. We work with case managers and attorneys to keep site information up to date and accurate. Our site has a wealth of resources available for victims of wrongdoing and their families.

Last modified: December 15, 2020

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