Medical Error Now the Third Leading Cause of Death in US

Researchers say medical errors cause 250,000 deaths per year, or the number three killer, behind number two, cancer, and number one with a bullet, heart disease.

Brain injury attorneys from published a report in the medical journal “The BMJ” showing that “medical errors” in hospitals and other health care facilities are incredibly common, claiming more lives a year than respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

Nightmare stories of nurses giving potent drugs meant for one patient to another and surgeons removing the wrong body parts are perhaps not simply exceptions, if the new study is to be believed.

Leader of the research team for the study, Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in an interview that the category includes “everything from bad doctors to more systemic issues such as communication breakdowns when patients are handed off from one department to another.”

“It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care,” Makary said.

Director of health care quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, Kenneth Sands recently said that the surprising thing about medical errors is the limited change that has taken place since the IOM report came out. Only hospital-acquired infections have shown improvement. “The overall numbers haven’t changed, and that’s discouraging and alarming,” he said, as reported by the Washington Post.

Sands, who was not involved in this new study published in the BMJ, said that one of the main barriers is the tremendous diversity and complexity in the way health care is delivered.

“There has just been a higher degree of tolerance for variability in practice than you would see in other industries,” he explained. When passengers get on a plane, there’s a standard way attendants move around, talk to them and prepare them for flight, Sands said, yet such standardization isn’t seen at hospitals. That makes it tricky to figure out where errors are occurring and how to fix them. The government should work with institutions to try to find ways improve on this situation, he said.

Makary also used an airplane analogy in describing how he thinks hospitals should approach errors, referencing what the Federal Aviation Administration does in its accident investigations.

“Measuring the problem is the absolute first step,” he said. “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.”

He said that in the aviation community every pilot in the world learns from investigations and that the results are disseminated widely.

“When a plane crashes, we don’t say this is confidential proprietary information the airline company owns. We consider this part of public safety. Hospitals should be held to the same standards,” Makary said.

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