Third Leading Cause of Death in the US: Medical Errors May 6, 2016
Every year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases data and information that pertains to causes of death in the medical field. A recent study published by the BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal, shows the serious limitations and consequences behind how medical deaths are classified and how, although medical errors themselves are the third leading cause for death in the United States, that death certificates do not properly address this.
The CDC’s information showed the way that death certificates are filled out by medical professionals – such as doctors, medical examiners, coroners and funeral directors. Each death certificate is given an International Classification of Disease, or ICD code. This code, however, does not allow for any classification of human error, so for cases where someone lost their life because of a doctor or nurse’s mistake, their death remains unclassified. This lack of a classification limits the opportunity for recognizing human error as a serious risk factor for loss of life.
The analysis published in the BMJ showed that medical errors actually accounted for 251,000 deaths last year alone – a number higher than stroke, Alzheimer’s, accidents and respiratory diseases. At that number, human and medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Even scarier is that this number totaled to 700 deaths per day, meaning that a huge number of people are dying daily while believing they are receiving the very care that is meant to save their lives.
So, what does human, “medical error” account for, exactly? It can be anything from an error in administering medication to a negligent doctor or nurse. It also encompasses what researchers call “systemic issues”, which include communication breakdowns that commonly occur as a patient is switched from one medical care department to another.
The researchers behind the study, both from Johns Hopkins, have several recommendations for moving forward. One major issue they assessed is that because the CDC does not require medical errors to be reported in their data, without doing in-depth studies and reporting, the consequences occurring on a national level can be much harder to recognize.
Without forcing this information to be reported, people will be left in the dark about the serious, medical risks they face when entering a healthcare facility. The researchers advocated for the CDC to require reporting physician errors in the scenario of a medically preventable death.
In 1999 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a study that showed similar data, and referred to this extreme number of patient deaths linked to medical errors as an “epidemic”. Yet, here we are in 2016, seventeen full years after the IOM’s study, and the numbers are pretty much the same; the only area that medical error-related deaths have improved since this initial study is in respect to hospital-based infections.
In light of the lack of reporting, the researchers behind the 2016 BMJ study believe that not only does there need to be an increase in medical reporting at a national level, but also that the medical field in general needs to be more tightly regulated. According to the researchers, as well as other medical professionals, the practices and standard of care at hospitals need to be held to a higher and more rigid level than they currently are. Only then, and with changes being implemented, can we begin to tackle the issue of medical negligence and error that is facing patients and is putting their lives at risk.
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