Medical Error Could Be 'Third Leading Cause of Death in the US'

Image: Stefan Ray
Image: Stefan Ray

You’ll never see a death certificate with the words ‘medical error’ as the cause of death. But a new study suggests that it could be considered the third biggest cause in the US.


An analysis of causes of death by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine suggests that medical errors—whether a surgical slip, poor prescription or dodgy diagnosis—account for as many as 250,000 deaths that occurred in 2013. That’s only beaten by heart disease and cancer, which each account for about 600,000 deaths per year.

It is, of course, incredibly difficult to gain an accurate handle on how many medical errors result in death. In this case, the team studied the medical literature about the prevalence of poor inpatient care in different areas of the medical profession. They then extrapolated those findings out to cover all medical care—though not nursing homes or out-patient care—provided across the US. Their final count of 250,000, published in the British Medical Journal, is therefore very much an estimate.


But the researchers use chance to make a fairly compelling argument: That even though it’s hard to talk about medical error, it would be incredibly useful to at least provide the chance to more easily report its occurrence as a contribution to death. It is of course impossible to eliminate human error from health care, but by creating an atmosphere in which it can be discussed more freely, it would be possible to develop better protocols and safety measures to avoid it in the first place.

It will, however, be hard to convince hospitals and doctors that the threat of litigation is worth that risk.

[BMJ via Medical Express]

Contributing Editor at Gizmodo. An ex-engineer writing about science and technology.

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I think most people live under the impression that all doctors are highly intelligent miracle workers, when in reality they are no different from any other profession. You have good ones and you have bad ones.

My brother’s brain tumor was misdiagnosed for a lingering cold for several months by multiple doctors until my parents paid out of pocket for an MRI.