Medical errors now the third leading cause of death, new study finds

By Bill Siwicki
11:04 AM
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While human error can never be eliminated, better measurement of errors can mitigate the frequency, visibility and consequences of such errors, finds the BMJ study.

While accurate data on deaths associated with medical errors is lacking, it is estimated that between 210,000 and 400,000 people in the U.S. die every year because of medical errors, making medical errors the third biggest cause of death in the country after heart disease and cancer, a new study found. While human error can never be completely eliminated, better measurement of medical errors can mitigate the frequency, visibility and consequences of such errors, the study said.

To remedy the problem of human error, hospitals should properly investigate patient deaths for potential contribution of error, and should include additional information on death certificates, according to “Medical error—The third leading cause of death in the U.S.,” a report from research firm The BMJ.

Martin Makary and Michael Daniel at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore noted that U.S. death certificates have no place for acknowledging medical error, and the academics call for better reporting to help understand the scale of the medical errors problem and how to tackle it, the BMJ report said.

Currently, death certification depends on assigning an International Classification of Disease (ICD) code to the cause of death; thus, causes of death not associated with an ICD code, such as human and system factors, are not captured. As a result, accurate data on deaths associated with medical errors is lacking.

Using studies from 1999 onward, and extrapolating to the total number of U.S. hospital admissions in 2013, Makary and Daniel calculated a mean rate of death from medical errors of 251,454 a year, the study said. They acknowledge that human error is inevitable, but say “although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility and consequences,” according to the study.

The Johns Hopkins experts believe strategies to reduce death from medical care should include three steps: Making errors more visible when they occur so their effects can be intercepted; having remedies at hand to rescue patients; and making errors less frequent by following principles that take human limitations into account, the study reported.

For instance, instead of simply requiring cause of death, they suggest that death certificates could contain an extra field asking whether a preventable complication stemming from the patient’s medical care contributed to the death.

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
Email the writer: bill.siwicki@himssmedia.com