New Study Says Medical Errors No. 3 Cause of Death in United States

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, medical errors should rank as the third leading cause of death in the United States. More than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) official common cause of death list, this would place medical error just behind heart disease and cancer.

The authors of the report hope the study highlights the need for changes in death certificates to better capture fatal lapses in care. In an open letter to the CDC, researchers urged the organization to add medical errors to its annual list of common causes of death.

“We are writing this letter to respectfully ask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to change the way it collects our country’s national vital health statistics each year. The list of most common causes of death published is very important – it informs our country’s research and public health priorities each year. The current methodology used to generate the list has what we believe to be a serious limitation. As a result, the list has neglected to identify the third leading cause of death in the U.S. – medical error.”

Medical errors that can lead to death are varied and can include everything from surgical complications to mix-ups with medication doses to a lapse in judgement. The study researchers defined medical errors in four categories:

  1. An error in judgement, skill, or coordination of care
  2. A diagnostic error
  3. A system defect resulting in death or a failure to rescue a patient from death
  4. A preventable adverse event

There is debate about whether or not the research data is precise enough to support listing medical error as the third leading cause of death. Researchers at Johns Hopkins used established research to calculate an incidence rate of 251,454 deaths per year, accounting for 9.7% of all deaths in the nation. However, no one knows the exact impact. Current reporting doesn’t capture things like communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors and poor judgement. The CDC supports its approach saying it is consistent with international guidelines, allowing U.S. death statistics to be compared with those of other countries. There is agreement, however, that more education is needed for doctors on how to report errors.

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