Preventable medical errors claim the lives of an estimated 251,000 Americans each year according to a recently published study by BMJ. The third leading cause of death in the United States, medical errors result in more fatalities than Alzheimer’s, respiratory disease, strokes, and even accidents.
Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not require hospitals and other health care treatment facilities to provide reports of medical errors when they collect data about fatalities, and few providers provide the public with information about mistakes, it is very difficult to evaluate the issue at the national level. Many experts believe that a more effective reporting system would shed more light on the reasons these medical errors are occurring, identify patterns of occurrences, and help medical providers avoid such costly mistakes.
At 251,000 deaths annually, medical errors are responsible for an alarming 700 fatalities each day (equal to about 9.5 percent of all fatalities) in the United States. Even more disturbing, however, is the number of medical mistakes that result in significant injuries or illnesses throughout the nation. According to Frederick van Pelt, a doctor who works for the consultancy agency the Chartis Group, some studies estimate the number of medical error-related injuries to be an astounding 40 times higher than the number of deaths. The actual numbers are difficult to measure, however, because patients and their families are often unable to differentiate damages caused by a bad outcome where no negligence occurred from medical malpractice.
The top five causes of death in the United States as reported by the National Center for Health Statistics:
- With an estimated 614,348 fatalities annually, heart disease continues to rank as the leading cause of death in the U.S.
- Cancer, with approximately 591,699 deaths each year, ranks second.
- Medical errors account for an estimated 251,454 American deaths every year.
- With 147,101 deaths each year, respiratory disease ranks fourth.
- Accidents are the cause of 136,053 fatalities annually in the United States.
Risk Factors for Medical Errors
Even without adequate research to identify the causes of common medical errors that result in injury and death in the United States, a number of risk factors obviously exist that could be improved. Research suggests that focusing on such factors as communication between care providers, more thoroughly discussing procedures with family members, following up on complaints of pain or unexplained symptoms, and ensuring that proper documentation is completed could help reduce the number of medical errors that result in death or serious injury.