A recent study by researchers at John Hopkins Medicine states that medical errors ought to be ranked as the third leading cause of death in the United States. The study analyzed medical death data over an eight year period and calculated that over 250,000 deaths each year are caused by medical error. This far surpasses with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists as the current third leading cause of death–chronic respiratory disease which claims just under 150,000 people per year.
Such fatal medical errors as found by the John Hopkins researchers include cases in which patients died of preventable infections, received medications they were allergic to, and similar possibilities. In many of the researched cases, doctors and nurse were not directly involved, but rather the error was the result of a complex healthcare system in which a faulty computer program and communication breakdown is to blame.
The authors of the study, including surgeon Dr. Mrtin Makary, are using its disparaging results to call for changes in death certificates, urging the CDC to include medical errors to its annual list detailing the top causes of death each year. Their idea is that capturing and highlighting these deaths will help better inform needed national health priorities.
Currently, the CDC only counts what is listed as the ‘underlying cause of death’ when publishing its lists. This is defined as the primary condition that led a person to seek out healthcare treatments. So if a patient reports to a hospital with heart disease complications but dies from complications resulting from an allergic reaction to a prescribed medication, the CDC will only rank the heart disease even if the doctor lists the medical error on the death certificate.
The John Hopkins authors argue that the inability for the CDC to capture and report the full and total impact of medical errors in the United States results in both a lack of public attention and the resulting failure for more investments in preventable research.
Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch for the CDC, agreed with the underlying importance of more accurate reporting, if not the proposed methodology, says, “This is a public health issue, and [doctors] need to report it for the sake of public health.”
Loved ones to patients who have passed away in the hands of healthcare professionals also have a right to know the full and complete story.