Medical errors, including wrong diagnoses, botched surgeries and medication mistakes, are the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to a new study.
More than 250,000 Americans are killed due to medical mistakes every year, greater than the toll from any major medical condition except heart disease or cancer, scientists from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, said Tuesday.
The authors of the study believe the number is actually much higher, as home and nursing facility deaths are not counted in that total.
The findings, published in The BMJ, come from an analysis of death rate records spanning eight years.
Dr. Martin Makary and Dr. Michael Daniel, the authors of the study, hope their analysis will lead to real reform in a health care system they argue is letting patients down.
“We have to make an improvement in patient safety a real priority,” said Makary, a professor of surgery and health policy and management at Johns Hopkins.
Makary said rates for deaths related to “medical care gone awry” aren’t tracked in a standardized way. Because of that, deaths due to medical errors aren’t tallied in the same way as heart disease, cancer and other conditions are when it comes to national statistics on causes of death.
“Human error is inevitable. But while we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences,” Makary wrote in the study.
Doctors and others may not acknowledge mistakes for fear of malpractice lawsuits, he said.
Medical errors can take a number of different forms, including diagnostic errors — missing the correct diagnosis due to substandard evaluation of a patient — and drug mishaps.
Unnecessary surgery, not calling in a specialist when one is needed, and missing life-threatening conditions such as septic shock also feed into the problem.
The problem is not unique to the United States. Earlier studies have shown undercounted medical errors are a problem in hospitals throughout the world.
According to US government data, heart disease is the current leading cause of death in the US, killing more than 611,000 people per year. Cancer comes in second with more than 584,000 deaths.
The new research would place medical errors at a solid third place, ahead of respiratory disease, which is responsible for almost 150,000 annual deaths.
John James, a NASA toxicologist whose son died of what he believes was a hospital error, did the last report on the subject in 2013 and estimated between 210,000 and 440,000 deaths a year could be attributed to medical error.