Medical Errors: Hidden Killer

Beyond Coverage September 2, 2021

A recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in America. But since the CDC doesn’t record medical errors as causes of death, little is being done to change this. Let’s dig a little deeper.

When someone dies, a code (an international classification for disease) is recorded on the death certificate as cause of death. This is used to conduct studies and compare diseases with other countries and by gender, age, etc. However, there is no code for a medical error so deaths caused by medical error aren’t being recorded.

The result? The CDC reports the top leading causes of death as heart disease, cancer and lower respiratory disease, with medical errors nowhere to be found. Due to this fact, this huge problem is not receiving the proper attention and funding it needs to be fixed.

Though conversations are happening about medical errors in some hospitals, they are private ones that don’t allow for national discussion and the opportunity to learn from mistakes. There is a need for checks and balances and a system that prevents medical errors, but in order to start the conversation that will lead to this system, medical errors can no longer be overlooked as a leading cause of death.

The study is calling for an updated death certificate that has a section to record if a medical error occurred. This way they can acquire more accurate data, be recognized by the CDC, and start the conversation. By their current calculations, approximately 250,000 deaths a year are due to medical errors.

Adding such a section to the death certificate raises concerns about lawsuits and physicians being held liable for patient deaths, but in order to make a change to this daunting statistic, it is necessary to take note of mistakes and learn from them. As the ground-breaking study “To Err is Human” pointed out in 2000, the problem is not bad people, but that good people are working in bad systems that need to be made safer.

As a result of this earlier study, steps have been taken to reduce medical errors such as patients identifying which body part needs surgery and multiple points of confirmation in the communication process. But there is still work to do.

Some of the most common medical errors are improper dosage, communication errors and dangerous drug interactions. These are preventable errors that are resulting in loss of life that need to be documented in order to properly build for a better system.

Medical errors need to be recognized as a legitimate cause of death. It is possible to help this situation and improve this statistic, but first we need to better acknowledge the problem.

Listen to a full interview by the co-author of the study here.

To Err is Human.” Institute of Medicine.
Medical Errors Third Leading Cause of Deaths in US, New Study Finds.” WYPR.
Leading Causes of Death.” CDC.

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