A study published in the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) this week claims that “medical error” is the third leading cause of death in the United States – behind only heart disease and cancer. Martin A. Makary, professor within the Department of Surgery at John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD and his research fellow, Michael Daniel, conducted this most recent study. Makary’s study concluded that between 210,000 and 400,000 deaths are “associated with medical errors among hospital patients” (Makary & Daniel, 2016).
Exactly what is a “medical error”?
Medical errors are defined as “unintended acts (either of omission or commission) or one that does not achieve its intended outcome, the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended…the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim…or a deviation from the process of care that may or may not cause harm to the patient” (Makary & Daniel, 2015).
Why do we not hear more about medical errors as a leading cause of death?
Professor Makary cites the way in which such deaths are reported. First, deaths caused by errors are unmeasured and discussions about prevention are confidential – such as a hospital’s internal root cause analysis committee. Second, death certificates do not list medical error as a cause of death. Instead, a death certificate must contain an International Classification of Disease (ICD) code as the cause of death. Medical error has no such ICD code and therefore can go unreported.
So, what’s the takeaway from this study?
We can take away a lot from Professor Makary’s most recent study into this unpublicized phenomenon. As he states in this BMJ article, “[h]uman error is inevitable…we cannot eliminate human error…” (Makary & Daniel, 2016). However, we can better measure it and create systems that reduce the frequency of human error in the delivery of healthcare. Professor Makary wants hospitals and healthcare providers to be more transparent about mistakes. Information should be shared. Data collection should be standardized. He hopes that 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.”
But all of this will not happen overnight. As a patient, you must be your own advocate. You must take charge of your own care. Do not rely on anyone else. If you feel that something is wrong, speak up. Healthcare providers are not immune to miscommunication. Mistakes happen. However, mistakes can almost always be corrected before any harm is done. So take charge of your own health advocacy. You will have increased confidence over your decisions, greater medical literacy, and better health outcomes.
In the event that you or a loved one still fall victim to medical error, please know that we, as attorneys experienced in the area of medical malpractice, will be able to advocate on your behalf. Mistakes happen. Don’t suffer alone.
Makary, M.A., & Daniel, M. (2016). Medical Error – the third leading cause of death in the US. BMJ, 1-5.