Healthcare News & Insights

Study: Medical errors are 3rd most common cause of death

Thanks to a new study, hospitals are going to be scrutinized even more closely for patient outcomes. Here’s why: Research now shows that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. 

166840595In the study, which was published in The BMJ, researchers from Johns Hopkins looked at available data about medical errors in hospitals that was published in past analyses.

Judging from this information, they estimated that 250,000 people die from medical errors such as preventable infections and drug mix-ups throughout the country each year.

According to an article from NPR, medical errors rank just behind the top two causes of death for U.S. citizens: heart disease and cancer. That means more people die from complications of medical errors than they do from respiratory disease.

The number is only an estimate because the U.S. doesn’t technically list “medical error” as a cause of death on death certificates, even if the underlying cause of the person’s illness was a medical mistake. However, based on the estimated frequency of errors in hospitals, along with patients’ medical histories, errors may have contributed to thousands more deaths.

Effects on CDC data

Because of the scope of this issue, Johns Hopkins’ researchers want the feds to do more.

In a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they called upon the agency to start tracking medical errors and adding them to its annual list of the top causes of death. The researchers said that all death certificates need to contain a question that specifically asks if a preventable complication of care played a role.

The CDC is reluctant to change how it handles tracking causes of death, however. Its current approach aligns with international death statistics guidelines, and any changes would affect that.

A CDC representative quoted in the NPR article said that a better approach to improving data about medical errors might be to encourage doctors to report them as they occur instead of checking a box after a patient’s death.

Better tracking boosts outcomes

The renewed debate over how to handle medical errors has put the spotlight back on facilities and how they handle reporting of preventable mistakes during surgeries and hospital stays.

If doctors do become responsible for listing a patient’s cause of death as a medical error, this could bring more attention to the issue of providing quality health care. But even if this never happens, the fact remains that doctors and other clinical staff should be more diligent about voluntarily reporting any medical errors they notice or cause.

More transparency in error reporting would be beneficial for facilities in many ways, despite the negative attention they may receive for high error rates.

The biggest advantage to having this data: Information about how and why an error occurred can help the care team avoid a similar negative outcome the next time around.

Using errors as a chance to improve care, instead of administering punishment or sweeping the problem under the rug, can potentially improve care quality and make hospitals safer.

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