Medical errors officially the third leading cause of death in U.S., study finds

A new study published in The BMJ confirms that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in United States, behind only heart disease and cancer.

The study, led by Martin Makary, M.D., professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, analyzed medical death rate data over an eight-year period and found that more than 250,000 deaths per year occur due to medical error, beating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) third leading cause of death--respiratory disease--by more than 100,000 cases.

The latest findings echo research conducted in 2013 that determined each year preventable adverse events lead to the death of 210,000-400,000 patients who seek care at hospitals, FierceHealthcare previously reported. 

Makary's research suggests that deaths stemming from medical error translate to 9.5 percent of all deaths each year in the U.S.

The reason for the discrepancy between the latest findings and the CDC statistics is that the federal agency's way of collecting the data does not classify medical errors separately on the death certificate, skewing the numbers, according to the researchers.

"Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven't been recognized in any standardized method for collecting national statistics," Makary said in a statement. "The medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used."

But accurate statistics can better inform research and funding priorities, he said. "Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country's research funding and public health priorities. Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don't appear on the list, the problem doesn't get the funding and attention it deserves," Makary said in the study announcement.

Makary and coauthor Michael Daniel, research fellow at Johns Hopkins, offered the following suggestions to reduce death due to medical errors:

  • Make errors known when they occur so clinicians can intercept their effects
  • Have options on hand to rescue patients
  • Cut back on mistakes by following principles that take into account human limitations

They also suggest that hospitals carry out a rapid and efficient independent investigation into deaths to determine the potential contribution of errors. "Sound scientific methods, beginning with an assessment of the problem, are critical to approaching any health threat to patients," they wrote. "The problem of medical error should not be exempt from this scientific approach."

However, they cautioned that most medical errors aren't caused by inherently bad doctors, and that reporting these errors shouldn't lead to punishment or legal action. Instead, they said medical mistakes are due to systemic problems, such as poorly coordinated care and the absence of safety nets. 

To learn more:
- here's the study
- read the announcement