Study Finds Medical Errors Number 3 Leading Cause of Death in U.S.

If you’re sick or injured, it’s common sense that you would go to the doctor’s to take the first step toward healing and getting better, right? But, what if statistics point out that it’s just not that simple? What if, in going to the doctor’s, you – the patient – should really start exercising more caution?

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University published a study stating that “medical errors” are the third leading cause of death in the U.S and are far more common than we think. The researchers estimate that at least 251,000 deaths occur every year because of mistakes made at hospitals and other healthcare facilities. That means the only killers more deadly than medical error are heart disease (1) and cancer (2); while respiratory disease, accidents (including car accidents), stroke, and Alzheimer’s all claim less lives each year than do mistakes at the hospital.

Dr. Martin Makary, chief researcher for the study, said that “the problem of people dying from medical care gone wrong is vastly under-appreciated.” Makary believes this “endemic problem” is a result of preventable deaths caused by medical error being reported incorrectly, which masks the problem.

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

What’s Happening in Our Hospitals?

This breeds the obvious question: How can this happen? How can hospitals – the places meant to save lives – be the third biggest killers in our country, causing on average 700 preventable deaths a day?

Medical errors can mean anything from doctors making careless mistakes to more systematic errors such as communication problems between hospital units. Some of the most common causes are:

  • Adverse drug events. This is when a patient is given a medication that causes death. Patients sometimes receive the wrong medication because of confusion, a patient mix-up, or incomplete information.
  • IV and catheter-related infections.
  • Surgical site infections.
  • Injuries from falls and immobility. Between 700,000 and 1 million patients are affected by “unplanned descents to the floor” every year.
  • Adverse events during childbirth. Today, women giving birth in America are more likely to die than a woman giving birth in China. A woman giving birth in America is also twice as likely to die as a woman giving birth in Canada or Saudi Arabia.

Deaths caused by medical error are far-ranging, however. Makary describes a case study wherein a young woman successfully underwent a transplant operation only to return to the hospital days later with internal bleeding. After the woman died, an autopsy revealed that her liver had accidentally been punctured during the initial surgery.

Other deaths caused by medical mistake have been more mind-boggling and more gruesome.

“Wrong-patient” and “wrong-site” procedures are when surgeons operate on the wrong patient or operate on the wrong site. In some real, documented cases, people have had the wrong legs amputated, while others have had organs removed when they shouldn’t have. One study found that surgeons in Colorado operated on the wrong patient at least 25 times over a 6-year period.

An Overlooked Epidemic Shrouded in Silence

Dr. Makary and his fellow researchers say that the ongoing problem is proven only through the statistics. Because death certificates don’t have the option of listing “medical error” as a cause of death, other reasons are provided and entered into official records. And this skews the annual reporting.

National statistics grossly fail to show the extent to which people are dying from avoidable mistakes in hospitals and healthcare facilities. Consequently, the problem is by and large overlooked by hospitals and government.

Furthermore, a culture based around secrecy has led to the tragic status quo. “Gag Orders”, or out-of-court settlements, where both the victimized patient and the offending malpractitioner are not allowed to talk about the malpractice event for the rest of their lives — are “routine.”

According to Dr. Makary:

“We have created this wall of silence where we don’t talk openly and honestly about the problems… These are issues that have lived in locker rooms and doctor’s lounges and nursing stations where people talk about stories and everyone knows about examples that they’ve witnessed or know of. But they live in the form of stories and not in the form of epidemiological numbers.”

Time for Change

One of the implications of the study is that this ongoing problem is related to inaccurate statistics. Because the national list of the most common causes of death influences where research funding and research priority are allocated, it is an extremely important piece of information. As the severity of the problem with medical errors has for so long continued under the radar, there has been no impetus for change.

Hopefully this groundbreaking piece of research will raise awareness about the sickening number of lives being unnecessarily lost in hospitals around the country. Hopefully this study is a step in the right direction, one that will create change and get hospitals to start doing what they’re supposed to do: save lives. The hope being that all preventable deaths can start – perhaps – actually being prevented.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: September 28, 2020