We’ve all seen an occasional headline of a medical mistake passing by. These errors include surgery gone wrong, misdiagnosis, administering the wrong dosage of medication or neglecting the care of a patient. However, these seemingly rare cases of medical errors happen more often that you may think.
According to a new study, led by Johns Hopkins surgeon Dr. Marty Makary, medical mistakes are the third most deadly killer of Americans, accounting for more than 250,000 deaths each year. This figure far surpasses the current third leading cause of death – respiratory disease – on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list.
Heart disease and cancer take the lead with around 600,000 deaths each. The Johns Hopkins experts now found that medical errors should take third place, at 251,000, followed by respiratory diseases, which account for about 150,000 deaths each year.
CDC list needs an update
In an open letter, the Johns Hopkins patient safety experts that authored the study urged the CDC to change the way it collects our national vital health statistics and immediately add medical errors to the list of the most common causes of death.
They noted that the current methodology used to generate the list has some serious limitations. Therefore, it failed to identify the third leading cause of death in the U.S., which is medical error.
According to Professor Martin Makary, there is an overestimation of diseases like cardiovascular issues and a vast under recognition of the flaws in our medical system as a cause of death. As a result, national health offices and research facilities are wrongly advised, and too little resources are spent on improving our medical care system.
“The inability to capture the full impact of medical errors results in a lack of public attention and a failure to invest in research,” he said.
Adding a new question to death certificates
The CDC currently uses a system that only records deaths occurring from diseases, morbid conditions, and injuries. The data is gathered from the information on death certificates filled out by physicians, funeral directors, medical examiners, and coroners.
Since the U.S. adopted the International Form of Medical Certificate of Cause of Death in 1949, the CDC has categorized the national mortality statistics through an International Classification of Disease (ICD) billing code given to the cause of death. Causes of death that do not fall under one of the ICD codes, such as human and system factors in medical care, are therefore not recorded.
The Johns Hopkins patient safety experts are now calling for changes in death certificates, asking to explicitly mention if a preventable complication of care contributed to the cause of mortality.
They further noted that it is time for the country to take action and recognize the role medical errors play in today’s society. Each year, billions of dollars are spent on heart disease and cancer research and prevention. This study clearly shows that it is time to put extra funding into reducing preventable harm and improving our medical system.