News Feature | May 9, 2016

Medical Error Is The Third Leading Cause Of Patient Death

Christine Kern

By Christine Kern, contributing writer

Patient Portals

Study finds only heart disease and cancer caused more deaths than medical errors.

Only heart disease and cancer caused more patient deaths than medical errors underscoring the need for closer attention to patient vitals, according to a study published by BMJ. However, only conditions that can be tagged with an ICD code are used as official causes of death on death certificates or rankings.

“One of the big issues that we in the patient safety research field face, that we run up against, is a problem where there’s very little funding for research in making care safer and better. Part of the problem is that our national funding is informed from our national health statistics. But those statistics don’t recognize medical care gone awry as a cause of death,” study co-author Martin Makary told CBS News.

After heart disease, cancer, and medical errors, the most common causes of death were chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, suicide, guns, and motor vehicle accidents.

The study authors write, “The role of error can be complex. While many errors are non-consequential, an error can end the life of someone with a long life expectancy or accelerate an imminent death. Moving away from a requirement that only reasons for death with an ICD code can be used on death certificates could better inform healthcare research and awareness priorities.”

Researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine examined studies dating back to 1999 to calculate a mean annual death rate from medical errors of 251,454 individuals. Currently, medical error is not listed as a cause of death on death certificates or in rankings of cause of death. According to and study co-author Michael Daniel, the U.S. system for measuring vital statistics should be revised to clarify when deaths are error-related. 

“Human error is inevitable. Although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences. Strategies to reduce death from medical care should include three steps: making errors more visible when they occur so their effects can be intercepted; having remedies at hand to rescue patients ; and making errors less frequent by following principles that take human limitations into account . This multitier approach necessitates guidance from reliable data,” say Makary and Daniel.