By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law
A new study by patient safety researchers revealed that common medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease and cancer. Their analysis, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on May 3, 2016, contends that “medical errors” in hospitals and other health care 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.

The Blame Game: From Bad Doctors to Systemic Issues.

Dr. Martin Makary, a surgical director at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the research in this case, said in an interview that the category of “medical errors” includes everything from bad doctors to more systemic issues such as communication breakdowns when patients are handed off from one department to another. Dr. Makary said rates for deaths related to “medical care gone awry” aren’t tracked in any standardized way. Because of this, deaths due to medical errors aren’t tallied in the same way as heart disease, cancer and other medical conditions when it comes to national statistics on causes of death.

The Findings.

The published findings come from an analysis of death rate records spanning eight years. Dr. Makary told CBS News that national mortality statistics are calculated using billing codes, which don’t have a built-in way to recognize incidence rates of mortality due to medical errors. To read his full interview with CBS on this study, click here.

For the study, Dr. Makary and his colleagues evaluated four separate studies that analyzed medical death rate data from 2000 to 2008, including one by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office (HHS) of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Based on 2013 data on hospitalization rates, they found that of 35,416,020 hospitalizations, that 251,454 deaths were attributable to a medical error. They said that adds up to 9.5 percent of all deaths a year in the U.S.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, heart disease is the current leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more than 611,000 people per year. Cancer comes in second with more than 584,000 deaths. The new research would place medical errors at a solid third place–ahead of respiratory disease, which is responsible for almost 150,000 annual deaths.

The Many Forms of Medical Errors.

Medical errors can take a number of different forms, including diagnostic errors–missing the correct diagnosis due to inadequate evaluation of a patient–and drug mishaps. Additionally, unnecessary surgery, not calling in a specialist when one is needed, and missing the diagnosis of life-threatening conditions such as septic shock also feed into the problem. Most such instances reflect system-wide problems, such as poorly coordinated care and inconsistencies in insurance coverage, among other issues, and cannot simply be blamed on “bad” doctors.

“Human error is inevitable. But while we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences,” Makary wrote in the study. To read further on the study from the BMJ, click here.

These Statistics Should Not Be a Shock.

Unfortunately, the results of this study should not be a shock to anyone. A similar study performed by the 1999 Institutes of Medicine (IOM) entitled “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health Care System” produced similar conclusions. What is shocking is that after all of these years, even with this knowledge, preventable medical mistakes costing tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives each year are still occurring.

For further discussions of the 1999 IOM report, click here and here.

Contact Health Law Attorneys Experienced in Representing Health Care Professionals and Providers.

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Nation’s Third Leading Cause of Death: Medical Errors, Study Finds.” AHLA. (May 6, 2016.) Web.

Cha, Ariana. “Researchers: Medical errors now third leading cause of death in United States.” The Washington Post. (May 5, 2016). Web.

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave., Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.

KeyWords: Patient safety researchers, peer review study, medical errors, third leading cause of death in the United States, medical errors in the health care field, legal representation for medical errors, legal representation for health care professionals, British Medical Journal (BMJ), medical death rate data, health law defense attorney, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), health law, The Health Law Firm

The Health Law Firm” is a registered fictitious business name of George F. Indest III, P.A. – The Health Law Firm, a Florida professional service corporation, since 1999.
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