Medical Errors: Deadlier Than COPD?


Although the world of medicine revolves to improve the health of people, it turns out that medical errors trail the first two leading causes of death in the United States.

Recent studies published in The British Medical Journal seem to indicate that preventable deaths resulting from medical mistakes cause an estimate of 250,000 deaths a year. Considering that the number of deaths as a result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) number around 149,000 each year, it appears that this endemic problem is in need of some attention.

The study was conducted by Martin Makary and Michael Daniel of Johns Hopkins University medical school, picking up the torch from similar studies like the Institute of Medicine’s 1999 landmark report which estimated as many as 98,000 people died from medical errors.

Other studies have estimated this number to be as high as 400,000 a year, however Makary and Daniel’s report may seem to represent a more realistic, yet similarly urgent need to address this issue.

Third Leading Cause of Death?

medical errors

Medical errors can range from serious issues to smaller compounding ones.

With funding directed toward things like cancer research and studying heart disease, many are wondering why preventable medical mistakes aren’t shown the same kind of prioritization.

One explanation given by Makary is that errors are not usually recorded to death certificates, but rather the resulting complication, which lead to the loss of life. Even though most mistakes are well documented, it’s not always clear as to whether or not they actually resulted in a death.

Most commonly, these mistakes appear in the form of infections caught during a hospital stay, surgical errors, a lack of follow-up appointments, or just prescription drug errors.

The report defines medical errors in several ways:

1. An unintended act (either of commission or omission) or one that does not achieve its intended outcome.

2. The failure of a planned action to be completed as intended (an error of execution).

3. The use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim (an error of planning).

4. A deviation from the process of care that may or may not cause harm to the patient.

Exposing Medical Errors in the Industry

Although the study isn’t looking to blame doctors, nurses, or administrators, it is trying to call attention to the need for systems to “mitigate the impact and reduce the frequency of human error,” according to Makary.

Rethinking the CDC’s coding system to allow medical errors to be reported as a top cause of death is only one of the ways to move forward with the study – fatal lapses of care also need to be recorded in death certificates for official analyses.

Overcoming these shortcomings in tracking the statistics vital to studying medical errors means better research can be conducted to save lives in the future. Hopefully the research of Makary and Daniels can serve to push this issue into the eye of the public and the medical community alike.

Author: Troy Diffenderfer

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