Medical Errors are a Top Cause of Death in the U.S.
It’s very common for people to have fear and anxiety about death. Many people are afraid of dying in very specific ways, such as in car accidents, as an act of homicide, or even in shark attacks. In reality, many of the most common causes of death are much more mundane. According to a new study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, medical errors were the third highest cause of death in the United States in 2015, with heart disease being the top cause of death and cancer being the second highest. This means that death by medical errors was more common than dying of a stroke, diabetes, influenza, firearms, and car accidents.
It’s estimated that 251,454 people in the U.S. die every year as a result of medical errors, but many experts, including Martin Makary, M.D. and Michael Daniel, M.D, the authors of the new study from Johns Hopkins, believe this number under-represents how large of a problem it really is. Figuring out the exact number of deaths caused by medical error can be very difficult for many reasons. First of all, the death certificates for individuals who died because of a medical error don’t specifically list the cause of death as a medical error. Many experts also believe that the reported number is low since studies only include inpatient deaths and rely on errors they were able to gather from documented health records. Some believe the true number of annual deaths due to medical errors is closer to 440,000.
The term “medical error” includes a wide range of things that could lead to the death of a patient, including misdiagnosis, mistakes with medication, and even simple miscommunications. In many cases, the patient is often completely unaware they have been the victim of a medical error. Surveys have shown that only about one third of patients are notified when a medical error has occurred. However, some research suggests that it’s not necessarily a fear of being sued for malpractice that makes doctors hesitate to tell their patients about medical errors. In countries such as New Zealand and Canada, where malpractice lawsuits aren’t allowed or are much less common than they are in the United States, doctors were equally unlikely to notify patients of medical errors.
A very large problem hospital patients face is the risk of infections by drug-resistant superbugs such as MRSA and C. diff. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 648,000 people develop infections caused by these sorts of bacteria while staying in United States hospitals and about 75,000 people die because of it every year. Between the fact that many hospitals overprescribe antibiotics and the fact that so many patients are being treated near other patients, it’s very easy for drug-resistant bacteria to thrive and grow in hospitals. Unfortunately, these types of infections can be deadly or life-threatening if a patient contracts them.
As part of their Safe Patient Project, Consumer Reports has rated hospitals all across the country to measure how well they handle things like patient safety. If you’re facing a stay in the hospital, it would certainly be worth seeing how Consumer Reports has rated your hospital.