Medical errors kill roughly 250,000 Americans a year, according to a recent paper published by a Johns Hopkins professor and surgeon. This places medical mistakes as the third leading cause of death in the U.S. These errors are a distant third behind heart disease (611,000) and cancer (585,000), but are nonetheless remarkable for killing more than a quarter of a million people each year.

The paper reviewed studies from the last several years and determined the mean yearly death rate from medical blunders is 251,454. However, as author Martin Makary points out, this figure is probably too low because it was derived only from hospital deaths. A more accurate figure would include deaths which occur outside of hospitals, such as in outpatient surgery centers or nursing homes.

Makary criticized the current practice of issuing death certificates, which include only an immediate cause of death. For example, a certificate of death might simply say that a patient bled to death, rather than mentioning that a surgeon cut the artery and caused the bleeding. Another certificate might state that a patient died from a staph infection, while failing to mention that the infection could have been prevented by good disinfection practices.

According to Makary, certificates of death should include an extra box or field where a medical examiner could mention that a preventable medical error contributed to the death. He writes that this would allow for better data collection about errors, leading to “an accurate national picture of the problem” and ultimately a “culture of learning from our mistakes.”

These observations are consistent with what many experts have said previously – that we suffer not from an epidemic of medical malpractice claims, but an epidemic of medical malpractice. Despite this alarming rate of error, only a small percentage of medical mistakes give rise to medical malpractice claims. This could be because people never get the information which would allow them to figure out whether malpractice occurred in the first place. Without a system which detects and reports medical errors, it’s hard even for experts to determine what went wrong.

Physicians are human, and no system of healthcare will ever be perfect. However, Makary’s paper shows there are several steps we should take to make our system a safer one. We don’t need reforms which would restrict or eliminate malpractice claims, but reforms aimed at preventing malpractice from occurring.

The study is entitled Medical error: the third leading cause of death in the US and was published by
BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) on May 3, 2016.

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