New Study Shows Medical Errors Rank As Third Leading Cause of Death

Posted By Power Rogers & Smith, P.C. || May 19, 2016

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.

In an 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.

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