Medical error is now the THIRD leading cause of death in US, say experts at John Hopkins

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  • Experts say: Medical errors are now the THIRD leading cause of death in the US
  • Medical errors claim 251,000 lives EVERY year
  • People are dying from the care rather than the disease

Nurses giving potent drugs to the wrong patient and surgeons removing the wrong body parts or leaving surgical debris inside the body — these stories have dominated recent headlines about medical care. It may be easy to write those off as rare cases, but a 2016 study by medical researchers at John Hopkins School of Medicine proves otherwise…

John Hopkins researchers: Medical errors – the THIRD leading cause of death in U.S.

In May 2016, researchers at John Hopkins School of Medicine rocked the medical establishment by publishing a very embarrassing report in the British Medical Journal. Their analysis shows that medical errors in hospitals and other healthcare facilities are incredibly common and may now be the third-leading cause of death in the United States — claiming 251,000 lives EVERY year, more than respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

Martin Makary, lead researcher and professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said that the medical errors category includes everything from bad doctors to more systemic issues, such as communication breakdowns when patients are handed off from one department to another.

“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 issue of patient safety has been a hot topic in recent years, yet it seems warnings have been ignored. In 1999, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report called preventable medical errors an “epidemic” — shocking the medical community and led to significant debate about what could be done. But it seems changes weren’t successful.

251,000 deaths due to medical error a year 

The IOM, based on one study, estimated deaths because of medical errors as high as 98,000 a year.  Makary’s research involves a more comprehensive analysis of four large studies, including ones by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality that took place between 2000 to 2008. His calculation of 251,000 deaths equates to nearly 700 deaths a day — about 9.5 percent of all deaths annually in the United States.

Makary said he and co-author Michael Daniel, also from Johns Hopkins, conducted the analysis to shed more light on a problem that many hospitals and healthcare facilities try to avoid talking about.

Although all providers extol patient safety and highlight the various safety committees and protocols they have in place, few provide the public with specifics on actual cases of harm due to mistakes. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t require reporting of errors in the data it collects about deaths through billing codes, making it hard to see what’s going on at the national level.

The CDC should update its vital statistics reporting requirements so that physicians must report whether there was any error that led to a preventable death, Makary said.

“We all know how common it is,” he said. “We also know how infrequently it’s openly discussed.”

Kenneth Sands, who directs health-care quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, said that the surprising thing about medical errors is the limited change that has taken place since the 1999 IOM report came out. Only hospital-acquired infections have shown improvement.

“The overall numbers haven’t changed, and that’s discouraging and alarming,” he said.

Sands, who was not involved in the study published in the BMJ, known as the British Medical Journal, said that one of the main barriers is the tremendous diversity and complexity in the way healthcare is delivered.

Consumer Reports recently investigated California licensing records and found that many doctors who were still practicing were on probation for serious violations of patient safety.

“There has just been a higher degree of tolerance for variability in practice than you would see in other industries. When passengers get on a plane, there’s a standard way attendants move around, talk to them and prepare them for flight, yet such standardization isn’t seen at hospitals. That makes it tricky to figure out where errors are occurring and how to fix them. The government should work with institutions to try to find ways improve on this situation. — Kenneth Sands, director of health-care quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Makary also used an airplane analogy in describing how he thinks hospitals should approach errors, referencing what the Federal Aviation Administration does in its accident investigations.

“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. What we need to do is study patterns nationally.” — Makary 

He said that in the aviation community every pilot in the world learns from investigations and that the results are disseminated widely.

“When a plane crashes, we don’t say this is confidential proprietary information the airline company owns. We consider this part of public safety. Hospitals should be held to the same standards,” Makary said.

Frederick van Pelt,  a doctor who works for the Chartis Group, a health-care consultancy, said another element of harm that is often overlooked is the number of severe patient injuries resulting from medical error.

“Some estimates would put this number at 40 times the death rate. Again, this gets buried in the daily exposure that care providers have around patients who are suffering or in pain that is to be expected following procedures.” – Van Pelt

The question is clear: is the medical system helping us stay healthy or making us even more sick? Considering this and other well-documented research, it’s becoming clear that real health will only be found OUTSIDE the medical and pharmaceutical establishment.

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Consumer Reports recently investigated California licensing records and found that many doctors who were still practicing were on probation for serious violations of patient safety.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Alexis Keiser

    I think there is the possibility that “medical error” deaths are even higher. For example, if a person dies while on chemotherapy, the death certificate won’t attribute the death to the toxic drug, it will be attributed to whatever underlying cancer the person was diagnosed with. If you believe as I do that chemotherapy is most often an inappropriate treatment for cancer, you would attribute the death to drug toxicity (arguably due to a significant “medical error”!) and not cancer.

  • Austin Gallivan

    Thanks For Sharing

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