The third leading cause of death in the United States may come from those you trust the most. A new study published in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) found that medical errors may cause over 250,000 deaths a year in the United States alone. Topped only by heart disease and cancer, these errors by medical professionals include diagnostic errors, surgical errors, infection, medication errors, communication breakdowns, failure to perform the necessary tests, and even healthcare worker fatigue. The findings were created from studies done at Johns Hopkins Medicine starting in 1999.
The study calls for wide-ranging changes in the medical field, not only to correct these possibly deadly errors but also in how the errors are reported. “Medical error” is not a reported cause of death on death certificates. Similarly, there is not a “medical error” category in the annual reports on deaths and mortality from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC only focuses on the “underlying cause of death” in their statistics, so even if a medical error is present in a case, the focus for the CDC remains on the reasons that led a person to seek medical treatment. Also, billing codes, the codes used when categorizing inpatient and outpatient treatment, are focused on maximizing billing and not recognizing medical errors. The death certificate and cause of death listed must line up with the aforementioned billing code.
Over the last ten years, Illinois public hospitals have paid out more than $180 million for patient deaths resulting from medical errors. Cook County paid out $93.2 million in settlements for 79 wrongful death cases at four different Chicago hospitals in the same span. The Johns Hopkins study is an attempt to shed light on these errors. “The inability to capture the full impact of medical errors result in a lack of public attention and a failure to invest in research”. The first step in making medical facilities safer is by creating a proper way to report these deaths caused by medical errors. Johns Hopkins Medicine, as well as other medical groups, are calling for reform starting with creating a “medical error” box on death certificates. By first creating a proper and efficient way to collect data on patient death and medical errors, medical professionals can then create the proper safety nets and protocols to address the problem.