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Medical errors are now the 3rd leading cause of death in the US, study finds

Terrifying.

FIONA MACDONALD
4 MAY 2016
 

According to a worrying new report, your doctor's more likely to kill you than chronic respiratory disease. In fact, medical errors - whether that's a surgical complication or the wrong dose of medication - are now the third leading cause of death in the United States.

After analysing eight years of official cause-of-death data, researchers have found that more than 250,000 people are killed each year in the US as a result of medical mistakes. That's 9.7 percent of all deaths in the country.

 

To be clear, that doesn't mean healthcare practitioners are out to get you or are intentionally harming patients. Mistakes included in the report ranged from poor communication to simple, honest-to-god accidents. But despite everyone's best intentions, the fact of the matter is that the only conditions more deadly than human error at the moment are cancer and heart disease, according to the new study.

"It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeing care," lead researcher Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told The Washington Post.

The most alarming part of all this is that, even though we've all heard the occasional horror story about someone waking up during surgery or being diagnosed with the wrong condition, by-and-large, most of us assume medical care is generally pretty safe.

Makary and his team believe this is a symptom of the way the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collect health statistics each year - although medical errors can be detailed on a death certificate, the annual mortality stats only take into account the underlying cause of death, not the potential medical failures that led to it.

For example, if a surgeon nicks a woman's liver during surgery and she dies of haemorrhage the cause-of-death goes down as cardiovascular, rather than a surgical error.

"Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven't been recognised in any standardised method for collecting national statistics," said Makary. 

 

In an open letter accompanying the study, which appears in The BMJ, Makary and his team urge the CDC to change the way it collects this data, and to update its official list to include medical error as the third biggest killer in the country (a position officially held at current by chronic respiratory disease, which causes around 150,000 deaths each year).

To figure out how many people are killed each year by medical mistakes, the team looked at four separate studies into medical death rate data from 2000 to 2008. Then, using hospital admission rates, they calculated that in 2013, 251,454 deaths would likely have arisen from errors in the healthcare system.

Here's how other conditions stacked up that same year:

  1. Heart disease - 614,348
  2. Cancer -  591,699
  3. Medical error - 251,454
  4. Chronic lower respiratory disease - 147,101
  5. Accidents - 136,053
  6. Stroke - 133,103
  7. Alzheimer's - 93,541
  8. Diabetes - 76,488
  9. Flu/pneumonia - 55,227
  10. Kidney disease - 48,146

In the official CDC list, medical error doesn't even rank. And that's a big deal, because its absence means that research into fixing the problem isn't funded.

"Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country's research funding and public health priorities," said Makary. "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."

Right now because so little research has been done into the problem, it's hard to say exactly what it'll take to fix the problem.

But the researchers admit that the most important step - and also the biggest challenge - is finding a way to encourage doctors to discuss and report medical errors transparently, without the stigma surrounding the issue. After all, let's face it, none of us ever like to admit we're wrong, particularly if doing so might get us sued.

"We all know how common it is," Makary told The Washington Post. "We also know how infrequently it’s openly discussed ... Measuring the problem is the absolute first step."

Let's hope studies like this, which acknowledge there's a problem to begin with, are a good starting point.

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