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Medical Errors Are Third Cause of Deaths in United States

Medical errors should be listed as the third leading cause of death in the United States, researchers say.
May 26, 2016.This article is archived
We archive older articles so you can still read about past studies that led to today's standard of care.
A study done at Johns Hopkins University says that medical errors should be the number 3 cause of death in the United States.
The research was published in the May 3, 2016 issue of The BMJ. Read the abstract of “Medical error -- the third leading cause of death in the US.”
A medical error is a medical care mistake that happens during a patient’s care. It could be an inaccurate or incomplete diagnosis, a mix-up in the dose or type of medicine, or side effects from a treatment that aren’t recognized.
Each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put together a list of the most common causes of death in the United States. The CDC creates the list from death certificates filled out by doctors, funeral directors, medical examiners, and coroners.
In their study, the researchers point out that death certificates require that the cause of death must be chosen from the International Classification of Disease code book. Medical error isn’t list in the code book, so no one is ever listed as dying from medical error. The researchers analyzed other studies on medical error to figure out how many people die from it each year.
The researchers estimate that about 250,000 people in the United States die from medical error each year. Comparing that number to the CDC’s list of the most common causes of death puts medical error third on the list, behind heart disease and cancer.
"You have this overappreciation and overestimate of things like cardiovascular disease, and a vast underrecognition of the place of medical care as the cause of death," said Martin Makary, M.D., Ph.D., surgical director at John Hopkins and one of the study’s authors, in an interview. "That informs all our national health priorities and our research grants."
The results of this study are very troubling. Because medical errors are mistakes -- they’re not intended to happen -- you may think there is nothing you can do to prevent them. But there are some things you can do.
"This study is another reason to be a difficult patient," said Brian Wojciechowski, M.D.,’s medical adviser. "Are you the kind of patient who doesn’t hesitate to raise your voice if something doesn’t seem quite right with your care or your medical records? Are you a person who doesn’t let anything go until it’s resolved? Then you may have been told at some point in your care that you’re a ‘difficult patient’ -- that you’re a challenge, that you bring too many issues and questions to the table, that your medical team has to brace themselves when you arrive for your visit. But if you’re a ‘difficult patient, I’m grateful. You make me work harder to stay acutely aware of my patients’ situations and needs. You inspire me to do my job more effectively every day."
There is only one of you and you deserve the best care possible. Do not be afraid to advocate for your own care and well-being. If anything about your care seems odd or questionable, speak up. Ask questions. Talk to your doctor about any and all side effects. Ask why the medicines in your treatment plan are prescribed for you and what the dosage is. Good communication with your medical team can help you avoid medical errors.
For more information on how to be a "difficult patient," watch a video of a speech Dr. Wojciechowski gave on the topic at a cancer survivors’ event.

— Last updated on February 22, 2022, 10:02 PM

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