Most people know that according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in the United States. The CDC ranks chronic lower respiratory disease as third. However, there is another killer that is not being correctly measured, and largely undiscussed: medical errors.
Researching Medical Errors
In 1999, the Institute of Medical published a report to discuss the medical error epidemic in the healthcare system. At that time, their research was based on just one study. They estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 people die in US hospitals annually due to preventable errors. According to the Institute of Medicine, medical errors are described as the “failure of a planned action to be completed as intended or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim.”
When providing health care, many things can go wrong. Some of the most common issues that may arise include adverse drug effects, wrong-site surgery, mistaken patient identities and more. The Institute of Medicine found that the highest error rates with serious implications are most likely to occur in intensive care units, operating rooms and emergency departments.
Common but never discussed
In May of this year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine released a new analysis of the medical error issue in BMJ. They studied death from medical errors from 2009 to 2013. They found that the numbers given in 1999 were severely understated. Their new figure puts the number of preventable medical error deaths at a whopping 251,454 per year. Even this number is still understated as they only included inpatient hospitalizations. They did not include doctor’s offices or ambulatory care centers.
What does that number actually mean? Why should any of us care? Let’s put these numbers into context: There are about 2.5 million deaths in the U.S. annually. Of those deaths, 700,000 are hospitalized patients. That means that the number of people dying from preventable medical errors every year accounts for about 10 percent of all deaths, and over one-third of all hospitalized patient deaths.
More people in the U.S. are dying from medical error than from respiratory disease or car accidents. Preventable medical errors cause more deaths per year than Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and kidney disease combined. The latest report did mention that these errors are resulting from systemic failure and not from bad doctors.
Sounding The Alarms
One reason that death by medical error does not get the attention it deserves is because it can be tough to determine what actually killed a patient. For example, you have an elderly, chronically ill patient who is given a too-high-dosage of medication and they die. Was it the dosage or the illness that killed them?
Another major contributor is the fact that they are largely unmeasured. The International Classification of Disease (ICD) coding system does not have a cause-of-death code for human or system error. That means that medical errors are not captured on death certificates.
The top-ranked causes of death on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list get the attention necessary to get research funding. The top-ranked causes are health priorities. If medical errors were added to the list, more research and studies could be done to help curb the problem.
It seems that in the healthcare industry, the medical error death epidemic is widely known, however rarely discussed. Humans are always going to make mistakes — we’re human. But unless we take the time to measure just how big this problem is, we’re never going to have the necessary information to design safer systems. Most importantly, if we don’t measure how big the problem really is, we can only expect the problem to worsen.