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BMJ Study Medical Errors are 3rd Leading Cause of Death

May 6, 2016

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine say that medical errors are common, and may even be the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Their findings, published recently in the BMJ, found that 251,000 deaths are caused each year by medical errors. This is higher than the number of lives claimed by respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer's, the data suggest.

Researchers used data from four large studies, including those conducted by the Health and Human Services Department's Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality from 2000 to 2008. Findings suggest that medical errors lead to 251,000 deaths a year; this is equivalent to 700 deaths a day and accounts for 9.5 percent of all deaths each year in the country.

"It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care," said lead author Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, to Washington Post. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said errors include everything from poor provider care to systemic flaws such as communication issues between departments.

"Measuring the problem is the absolute first step," said Makary, according to WSJ. "Hospitals are currently investigating deaths where medical error could have been a cause, but they are under resourced. What we need to do is study patterns nationally."

The issue of medical errors and patient harm has not always been well known. The industry was shocked by a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, which called medical errors an "epidemic". The findings sparked a discussion about how to improve patient outcomes and prevent mistakes. According to the report, medical errors account for 98,000 deaths a year.

Makary and co-author Michael Daniel say the study was intended to shed light on medical errors, something that is not frequently discussed. Although many health care providers and facilities emphasize patient safety, few will openly share cases of medical errors that led to patient harm.

Compounding this is the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not require reporting of errors when collecting data about deaths through billing codes; this prevents researchers from being able to identify trends at the national level. Makary wants the CDC to update its vital statistics reporting requirements so that doctors will have to document any error resulting in a preventable death. "We all know how common it is," he said. "We also know how infrequently it’s openly discussed."

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