The 3rd Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. is Not What You Think (and It’s Shocking)
Of the top three leading causes of death in the United States, the first two would probably not surprise most people.
Heart disease and cancer remain the two most common causes of death, but according to a new study, the third leading cause of death is now medical error.
Yes, according to this new research, more people in the U.S. die from medical errors than from such common killers as respiratory disease, diabetes, stroke and accidents, among many others.
How Did the Researchers Quantify Medical Errors?
With regular headlines about patients dying from being prescribed the wrong medicine, or about surgeons removing the wrong limb, the fact that medical errors occur may not be shocking. Nevertheless, with new research citing the number of yearly national deaths at 251,454, the frequency of these mistakes is alarming. The new study, conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), employed a more comprehensive analysis of such events than is commonly used. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) had estimated deaths related to medical errors as high as 98,000 per year, but by performing a more thorough analysis of four large studies and analyzing dates over a nine-year period, the researchers calculated a much higher number.
By taking this more thorough, measured approach to examining previous studies and national data, the researchers identified many deaths that had not been accounted for by other tracking methods. As the study’s lead researcher Martin Makary stated, these deaths by medical error “boil down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care.”
Why is This Happening?
There are numerous causes for such deaths, including systemic issues such as faulty communication between providers, hospital-acquired infections, and, to put it quite simply, physicians neglecting to offer their patients the care they deserve. Clearly, healthcare providers, physician practices, and hospitals recognize the value of patient safety, regularly highlighting safety committees, safety protocols, and other safeguards that exist to protect patients. However, given the surprisingly large number of deaths that have been found to be due to medical errors, something is amiss.
For one, there is insufficient tracking of these events in the U.S., as the CDC does not require the reporting of errors in the data it collects via medical billing codes, thus making it hard to track these outcomes accurately. Furthermore, there is inconsistency among the services that healthcare providers offer, and this variability makes the standardization of care—as well as the standardization of data—very challenging, if not impossible.
What Can Be Done?
Without further standardization—or better yet, a comprehensive way of tracking these deaths—it will be difficult to accurately quantify the problem and make improvements. Therefore, acknowledging the levity of the problem, and finding ways to track it, should be the first step toward lessening these deaths. Moreover, further information is required about severe injuries and illnesses that result from medical error. (The researchers did not quantify the burden of these types of incidents, but noted that they are obviously occurring in large numbers as well.) Ultimately, our health care system needs to devise better communication methods, implement more safeguards, and broadly improve patient care, or else this problem is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
Derek is a technical writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the health care field, having first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware. He is a contributing author on a number of textbooks in the medical field, ran a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and has written a variety of other pieces from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal interest in health and wellness by playing multiple sports and running marathons. An insatiable traveler, he spent 16 months working and living abroad while traveling through South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.