Watch enough episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Chicago Med and it is clear that fictional medical personnel make a lot of mistakes. Unfortunately, the reality is not much better. In fact, new research shows that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
Preventable medical mistakes kill more people in this country annually than car crashes, chronic respiratory diseases or strokes. Research published in the British Medical Journal on Tuesday indicated that avoidable medical errors resulted in at least 251,454 fatalities in 2013 (the researchers believe the number is underreported), accounting for 9.5 percent of deaths. Only cancer and heart disease resulted in more losses that year.
“It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeing care,” according to Martin Makary, the professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who headed the study. He noted that the leading causes of death as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) help set public health priorities and funding for research. “Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don’t appear on the list, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves,” Makary said.
The Johns Hopkins study initially involved a review of four other studies that contained death rate information from 2000 through 2008. They then extrapolated information for 2013 using admission information on more than 35 million hospitalizations that year and developed their estimate of one-quarter of a million. By contract, the CDC reported that about 611,100 people died from heart disease, almost 585,000 succumbed to cancer and respiratory diseases like emphysema, asthma and bronchitis killed 149,205 that year, which makes medical errors the third leading cause.
The researchers caution that their number is actually an underestimate and believe medical errors harm even more patients than they could account for. That is because data on these kinds of deaths is surprisingly sparse. The researchers believe that death certificates do not reflect the complete picture.
As Makary noted, “The medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used.” At present, the cause of death listed on a death certificate reflects an insurance billing code. Those codes do not adequately capture human error or system factors. A death from stroke is not likely to indicate if the stroke was caused by a missed blood clot or a drug error.
It should be noted that this study reflects higher numbers than previous ones, which have reported the death rate attributable to medical errors is closer to 195,000. However, the government reported a level of 180,000 in 2008 for only Medicare patients.
The researchers emphasized that most medical errors are not because of bad doctors. They feel that preventable errors can be attributable to systemic problems like poorly coordinated care, the absence of safety nets, and a lack of accountability. So next time an intern makes a medical error on Grey’s Anatomy realize that something similar is undoubtedly happening at a U.S. hospital, which adds up to the third leading cause of death – in real life.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Johns Hopkins Medicine: Study suggests medical errors now third leading cause of death in the US
Washington Post: Researchers: Medical errors now third leading cause of death in United States
CNN: Medical errors may be third leading cause of death in the U.S.
Photo by SSgt. Derrick C. Goode, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force (Public Domain)