According to a new survey by researchers Sarah Joo, Michael Daniel, Tim
Xu MPP, and Martin A. Makary M.D. from Johns Hopkins Medicine, medical
errors should rank as the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Based
on analyses of prior research, their study estimates that more than 250,000
deaths are caused by medical errors each year. That would place medical
errors ahead of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) current
third leading cause of death, respiratory failure, which causes around
150,000 deaths per year, but behind heart disease and cancer which each
claim about 600,000 lives per year.
According to their study, the researchers classify death due to medical error as:
- An error in judgement, skill, or coordination of care.
- A diagnostic error.
- A system defect resulting in death or a failure to rescue a patient from death.
- A preventable adverse effect.
open letter to Dr. Thomas Frieden, the Director of the CDC, the researchers ask the
agency to change the way it collects the country’s vital health
statistics so that the list of leading causes of death can properly reflect
their findings on medical error. According to their research, the CDC’s
deaths collection system only counts causes of death occurring from diseases,
morbid conditions, and injuries.
This current system, which assigns an International Classification of Disease
(ICD) billing code to the cause of death, reportedly cannot track causes
of death not associated with an ICD code. The researchers acknowledge
that the current system is consistent with World Health Organization (WHO)
guidelines, but assert that “the U.S. should be a leader in recognizing
the role of medical error in national health statistics.”
The chief of the mortality statistics branch for the CDC, Bob Anderson,
disputed that the issue related to the agency’s coding. Complications
from medical care are reportedly listed on death certificates, but the
CDC’s published mortality statistics only count the underlying cause
of death, which is defined as the condition that lead a person to seek
treatment. This means that even when medical error is listed on a death
certificate, it isn’t included in the published total.
The researchers also highlight the financial benefit of adding medical
error to the list of leading causes of death in the U.S. With vast amounts
of money dedicated to cancer and heart disease research and prevention,
they hope that acknowledging the prevalence of medical errors in patient
care will increase allocations for more research and technology that could
reduce medical errors and improve the quality and accuracy of patient care.