A study published on May 3, 2016 in the well-respected medical journal BMJ that was authored by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland determined that medical error was the third leading cause of death in the United States.
The contribution of medical error as the cause of death in the United States has been underestimated because medical error is not a category of cause of death that physicians, funeral directors, medical examiners, and coroners use when completing death certificates in the United States.
Those who complete death certificates in the United States rely on the International Classification of Disease (“ICD”) code for the cause of death. Because human factors and system factors such as medical errors and medical mistakes as a cause of death are not associated with an ICD code, they are not part of the death statistics that are based on the CDC’s annual list of the most common causes of death in the United States, which also influences national research priorities each year.
What Is A ‘Medical Error’?
The study’s authors define medical error as an unintended act by omission or commission, or one that does not achieve its intended outcome; the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended (i.e., an error of execution) and/or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim (i.e, an error of planning); or, a deviation from the process of care that may or may not cause harm to the patient. Medical error that causes harm to a patient can occur at the individual level or at the system level.
The authors of the recent study criticized prior studies that estimated the annual deaths in the United States caused by medical error, calling the prior studies “limited and outdated,” particularly the 1999 Institute of Medicine (“IOM”) report that estimated that there are between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths annually in the United States due to medical error. The study’s authors cite subsequent research findings, including one study’s finding that, if applied to all registered hospital admissions in the United States in 2013, there are over 400,000 annual deaths in the United States due to medical error.
The authors of the study calculated a mean rate of death from medical error of 251,454 per year using studies reported since the 1999 IOM report and extrapolating to the total number of U.S. hospital admissions in 2013, which the authors believe understates the true incidence of death due to medical error because the studies rely on errors extractable in documented health records and include only inpatient deaths.
The study’s authors conclude that comparing their estimate to CDC rankings suggest that medical error is the third most common cause of death in the United States. The authors suggest that instead of simply requiring the cause of death be noted on death certificates in the United States, death certificates could contain an extra field inquiring whether a preventable complication stemming from the patient’s medical care contributed to the patient’s death, which would help better estimate and understand the incidence of death in the United States due to medical error.
If you or a loved one may have been injured due to a medical error caused by medical negligence in the United States, you should promptly contact a local medical malpractice attorney in your U.S. state who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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