Medical error is now the third leading cause of death in the United States. The first two are heart disease and cancer. This, according to a British Medical Journal analysis by Martin Makary and Michael Daniel, professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
This article follows on several studies, including the landmark Institute of Medicine “To Err Is Human.” In To Err Is Human The Institute of Medicine, the branch of the government that studies medical issues, found that 98,000 people were dying from medical errors in the United States. This put the number of deaths at higher than work injuries and car wrecks combined.
According to Makary and Daneil, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to categorize medical errors as a cause of death. The article criticizes the medical community for using an international classification of disease (ICD) system as the primary indicator of death. Causes of death not associated with an ICD code, such as human error, are not captured in the system. Accordingly, there is no real way to track how many people die of medical errors on a yearly basis in the United States without extensive research, like they did.
Makary estimates 251,000 people die of medical errors in the United States per year. He says, in this interview, that this number is conservative. This number is consistent with other studies conducted after the Institute of medicine study. Makary cites the Harvard medical practice study in 1984, the 1992 Utah and Colorado studies, a 2000 report associated with the agency for healthcare quality and research patient safety indicators, which estimated 575,000 deaths were caused by medical error between 2000 2002 and the Inspector General’s health records of hospital patients in 2008. It also looks at a study by Classen et. al., which translates to work 400,000 deaths a year by medical error.
Assuming this study is correct, this means that nearly 700 deaths a day are related to medical error. This would be about 9.5% of all deaths annually in the United States and would lead common causes of death like Alzheimer’s, stroke, and respiratory disease as a cause of death in the United States.
These numbers, of course, only account for deaths. This does not have anything to do with the large number of people who are injured but not killed by medical errors. As a legal practitioner I am amazed at how many people call me up with medical neglect cases. Some of them, of course are just people who are mad at their doctor. However, the great majority have a legitimate gripe. Frequently, their cases are not economically viable because the legislature has made medical neglect cases very difficult to bring.
In contrast, politicians complain that there are frivolous medical lawsuits and how we have to cut back on medical error cases because if we don’t, physicians will leave the state. Politicians in all states say this.
What really needs to be done is for the medical community to regulate the problem and get it under control. And I believe this is actually possible. When I started practicing law, anesthesiologists got sued frequent. They instituted reforms to cut patient deaths. As a result of those reforms, patient deaths per in anesthesiologists are now fairly unusual. Anesthesiologists do not get sued very often these days.