It’s Surprising, but This Might Actually Be a Leading Cause of Death

medical error
Science & Medicine

A new study, recently published in BMJ and authored by Johns Hopkins, found that medical errors may be the third highest cause of death in the United States. This includes botched surgeries, misdiagnoses, and having the wrong medication prescribed.

It was found that over 250,000 Americans die every year from these fatal mistakes, ranking them just below heart disease and cancer in terms of fatalities. It is estimated that these errors even kill more people than diseases like bronchitis and emphysema.

Previous studies of this phenomenon includes the Institute of Medicine study in 1999 that put accidental deaths in the range of 44,000-98,000 annually. That estimate is incredibly conservative, as many other studies have found the rate of death to be as high as 195,000 per year. But this study is the first to have such an incredibly high death rate.

One problem the researchers faced when creating this study was that medical errors are not often recorded in the same way as other standard causes of death. Dr. Martin Makary, who helped author the study, spoke of a patient who came to the hospital feeling unwell after an organ transplant. The doctors could find nothing wrong with her, and sent her home.

However, it was later discovered that her liver had been nicked during the transplant and she then suffered cardiac arrest, followed by death, due to the medical mistake. Because what actually took her life was the cardiac arrest, that was listed on the death certificate, even though it was the cut liver that created the issue in the first place.

Makary says he hopes that this study can help make medical care safer, but he recognizes there are some severe limitations:

“One of the big issues that we in the patient safety research field face, that we run up against, is a problem where there’s very little funding for research in making care safer and better. Part of the problem is that our national funding is informed from our national health statistics. But those statistics don’t recognize medical care gone awry as a cause of death”

This issue, however, is not one that presents itself only in the United States. Studies have shown that this is a major issue in hospitals globally.