Medical Errors Third Leading Cause of Death?

Apparently medical care is bad for you!

According to data from the British Medical Journal, in an article brought to us by Vox, a quarter of a million people died of medical errors in 2013. Medical errors were exceeded as a cause of death only by cancer (585,000 people) and heart disease (611,000 people).  Death from motor vehicle accidents paled in comparison (34,000) – as did death from firearms (34,000) and suicide (41,000).

One problem with tracking deaths caused by medical errors is there is no requirement for hospitals to report or track errors; nor are medical errors reported on a death certificate as a cause of death.  This type of information leads us to the question: how many people are really dying from medical errors? The article admits it is difficult to know with any certainty.

The article does not say this but some medical errors may result from treatment decisions, that is retrospect were not the optimal treatment — but hardly errors nonetheless. Some people may have died regardless of the treatment. Say a doctor administers a clot-busting drug or a blood thinner after a heart attack and the patient experiences a brain hemorrhage. My own father developed a antibiotic-resistant MRSA infection that shut his kidney’s down after being admitted for an aneurysm. Did he die of MRSA, kidney failure or the aneurysm?  His doctor maintained his deteriorating condition from the aneurysm is why he caught MRSA.

Whatever the true answer, even people like Don Berwick, Obama’s Medicare administrator, admits a small percentage of hospital admissions are likely to suffer significant harm from medical errors (maybe 2 percent to 3 percent). One huge example is bed sores patients develop from poor quality care, which later have to be treated. Of the estimated 500,000 Americans who develop bed sores, 58,000 do not survive. Of course, healthy people do not develop bed sores — only those who are somewhat unresponsive or comatose. The article also cites a study in the journal, Surgery, that found over a 20-year period surgeons operated on the wrong area of the body more than 2,400 times and left foreign objects behind nearly 5,000 times. In a couple dozen instances, the wrong patient was operated on.  

Comments (7)

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  1. Paul Nelson says:

    If you are not economically/work environment/technically supported to manage the details of health care precision, performance will suffer. The constant need to improve the professional assets of an institution with an underlying core task of managing information is unique, discussed eloquently by Peter Drucker in his 1993 book “Post-Industrialist Society.” The continuing cognitive dissonance between the humanitarian and scientific realms of knowledge continues to plague our most ardent commitments.

  2. Devon Herrick says:

    One f the best examples of a area of medicine engaging in continuous improvement is anesthesiology. It used to be one of the areas of medicine that was risky and suffered lawsuits. Over years the profession systematically created protocols and began to sue pulse oximetry to asset patient condition. I don’t understand the reasons, but you can now buy a small pulse oximeter for around $25. I bought one as a safety device for when I fly.

  3. Cree Sand says:

    I wish there were hardcore preventative plans of action in place to prevent medical errors. Is that even possible? I’m not sure but I am a PCU nurse and about four weeks ago my unit had a medical error occur that caused a patient to die. This patient was 50 years old and came into the hospital for a single toe amputated. I do believe that all people make mistakes, after all, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t but medical errors is a very tough topic and you don’t really hear about it unless you are directly involved or a part of a facility that has had an event occur. I understand that medical errors represent a serious public health problem and pose a threat to patient safety and I do realize that all patients are potentially vulnerable, therefore medical errors are costly from a human, economic, and social viewpoint. It’s obviously that it is absolutely impossible to eliminate all medication errors. However, I think the role of nursing administrators in reducing and preventing these errors is vital. I believe to effectively avoid future errors that can cause patient harm, improvements must be made on the underlying, more common and less-harmful systems problems most often associated with near misses. But most articles that I read state, “acknowledging that the medical error happen, learning from them, and working to prevent future errors represents a major change in the culture of healthcare. A shift from blame and punishment to the analysis of the root causes of errors and the creation of strategies to improve. In other words, healthcare organizations need to create a culture of safety that views medical errors as opportunities to improve the system. Every person on the healthcare team has a role in making healthcare safer for patients and workers.” Can this practice really prevent medical errors?