More than 250,000 deaths per year in the US occur due to medical errors, making it the third highest cause of mortality after heart disease and cancer, according to a new study.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the US examined four separate studies that analysed medical deaths rate data from 2000 to 2008.
Using hospital admission rates from 2013, they found that based on a total of 35,416,020 hospitalisations, 251,454 deaths stemmed from medical errors, which researchers say now translates to 9.5 per cent of all deaths each year in the US.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2013, 611,105 people died of heart disease, 584,881 died of cancer, and 149,205 died of chronic respiratory disease – the top three causes of death in the US.
The newly calculated figure for medical errors, published in The BMJ, puts this cause of death behind cancer but ahead of respiratory disease.
“Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors do not appear on the list, the problem does not get the funding and attention it deserves,” said Martin Makary from Johns Hopkins University.
The researchers caution that most of medical errors are not due to inherently bad doctors, and that reporting these errors should not be addressed by punishment or legal action.
Rather, they say, most errors represent systemic problems, including poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or under-use of safety nets, and other protocols, in addition to unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns that lack accountability.
“Unwarranted variation is endemic in health care. Developing consensus protocols that streamline the delivery of medicine and reduce variability can improve quality and lower costs in health care. More research on preventing medical errors from occurring is needed to address the problem,” said Makary.