Recent research has found that medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States. An analysis published by the BMJ last week showed that medical errors in hospitals and other health care facilities are very common, resulting in 251,000 deaths per year; more deaths than respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s. The study was led by Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Makary said the category of study includes everything from bad doctors to systematic issues such as breaks in communication when patients are transferred from one department to another. He also stated that people are dying from the care they are receiving rather than the disease they are being treated for.
Patient safety has been an important topic within the last few years. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report that labeled preventable medical errors an “epidemic”. This title shocked the medical community and sparked conversations about what could be done to stop this. The IOM’s report was based on one study that estimated 98,000 deaths a year occur as a result of medical error. The study conducted by Makary is based on four large studies taking place between 2000 and 2008.
Calculations Makary and co-publisher, Michael Daniel, conducted shine light on a topic that is often avoided. Most medical providers openly praise their patient safety methods, pointing out various safety committees and protocols. However the CDC does not require providers to report medical errors in the data they collect about deaths through billing codes, making it difficult to gauge what is happening at a national level. Makary believes the CDC’s vital statistics reporting requirement should be updated to require physicians to report whether there was any error that led to a preventable death. This would likely meet stiff opposition from physician and hospital lobbies concerned about liability issues. Another item that is also often underestimated is the number of severe patient injuries that result from medical error; the article cited below references an estimate that “severe” patient injuries due to medical errors occur 40 times a day.
Kenneth Sands, director of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, said the surprising thing about medical errors is the lack of change that has taken place since the publishing of the IOM report. Overall, the numbers have not changed, except in the area of hospital-acquired infections. Sands also pointed out that one of the major barriers in the medical field is the diversity and complexity in the way health care is delivered. The medical field has a high tolerance for diversity that is not seen in other fields, which complicates the way in which measuring the problem is performed; a standard needs to be established in order to study patterns of error on a national level.