Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States, according to a study from Johns Hopkins Medicine. The study highlights the issues in tracking vital statistics and how it may hinder research as well as keep the problem out of the public’s eye.
In an open letter, Dr. Martin Makary, who led the study, called for changes in death certificates to better track fatal medical errors. The letter urges the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to add medical errors to its annual list of top causes of death.
The study estimates that more than 250,000 Americans die from medical malpractice. And those medical errors are more likely to occur mid-summer.
Going off of the CDC’s official list, medical errors would rank just behind heart disease and cancer, which each took about 600,000 lives in 2014. It would also put medical errors ahead of respiratory disease on the list, which accounted for 150,000 deaths that same year.
Fatal medical errors can range from misdiagnoses to surgical complications and medication complications.
The CDC has argued that complications from medical care are listed on death certificates and codes do capture them. However, the CDC’s mortality statistics only count the “underlying cause of death” as the condition that led to the person seeking treatment. Even if a doctor does list medical errors on the death certificate, this information is not included in the published tools. Only the underlying condition, is counted – even when that condition isn’t fatal.
The CDC’s approach is in line with international guidelines, which means that the system is not likely to change.
In 1949, the U.S. began using the International Classification of Diseases billing codes to track the causes of death. At the time, diagnostic errors were an under-recognized cause of death and were unintentionally excluded from national health statistics.
As part of the study, the researchers looked at four separate studies that analyzed medical death rate information from 2000-2008. Using hospital admission rates from 2013, researchers extrapolated that data based on 35,416,020 hospitalizations and concluded that 251,454 deaths resulted from medical errors. Researchers say that the figure translates to 9.5% of all deaths each year in the United States.
The researchers caution that the majority of medical errors are not caused by bad doctors, and reporting these incidents should not be addressed by legal action or punishment. Most medical errors, they say, are caused by systemic problems, poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks and other protocols.