Medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United
States, behind heart disease and cancer, according to a recent
study published by Drs. Makary and Daniel at John Hopkins. It is
estimated at least 251,454 Americans die due to medical errors
every year. The study goes on to say that medical error leading to
patient death is under-recognized in many other countries,
including UK and Canada. The failure of recognition seems to relate
to how these deaths are recorded, or an inability of reporting
systems to capture medical errors. For example, the cause of death
listed on a death certificate may state cardiac arrest. However,
the medical mistake that led to the cardiac arrest is not
The authors urge greater awareness to create preventative
measures, and say:
Although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure
the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency,
visibility, and consequences...Currently, deaths caused by errors
are unmeasured and discussions about prevention occur in limited
and confidential forums, such as a hospital's internal root
cause analysis committee or a department's morbidity and
mortality conference. These forums review only a fraction of
detected adverse events and the lessons learnt are not disseminated
beyond the institution or department.
Transparency about medical mistakes, can save lives: "More
appropriate recognition of the role of medical error in patient
death could heighten awareness and guide both collaborations and
capital investments in research and prevention" the authors
Survey Summary Points
Death certificates in the US, used to
compile national statistics, have no facility for acknowledging
If medical error was a disease, it
would rank as the third leading cause of death in the US
The system for measuring national
vital statistics should be revised to facilitate better
understanding of deaths due to medical care
As a medical malpractice lawyer practising in this area for the
past 17 years, I can attest to the long-standing issues with
transparency regarding medical errors. When a loved one dies or
suffers from complications due to medical error, family members
often don't have access to information about the full
circumstances behind the situation. Not only are these events
emotionally devastating, they can also be financially crippling.
Full accountability for medical mistakes is necessary for the
system to be changed and improved, so that these events can be
prevented in the future. Sometimes the only way to get access to
that information is through the legal system.
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