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Researchers Say Medical Error is Number 3 Cause of Death

Jason Reese

A team of medical researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has published a report alleging medical errors to be a more common cause of death than previously thought. The team is led by Dr. Martin A. Makary, Professor of Surgery and Health Policy & Management, and the new report was published on Tuesday in The BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal).

In conjunction with the report’s release, Dr. Makary and his colleagues sent a letter to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), urging a change to methods of data collection on causes of death and an immediate addition of medical error to the CDC’s annual list of the top causes of death in the United States.

The report, based on an analysis of prior research, finds the number of Americans dying due to a medical error to be around 250,000. If true, medical error would be the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer, two diseases that annually kill 600,000 each.

Debate on Coding System

The authors of the Johns Hopkins study believe changes to death certificates can help to improve coding and tracking of death due to medical error. Currently, CDC mortality statistics use the “underlying cause” of death for reporting purposes. Dr. Makary and his team suggest this is problematic, as those who may be experiencing serious illness have their deaths coded according to that illness, regardless of whether or not the illness was actually the cause of death. Not only does this result in the underreporting of medical error as a cause of death but may also indicate overreporting of some illnesses.

Bob Anderson is the head of the mortality statistics branch of the CDC, and he says the coding is not the problem. According to Anderson, medical error complications are listed on death certificates and captured by the CDC’s coding method. The CDC’s approach to these statistics make the data comparable to the data coming from other countries, a consistency that is important for research on and an understanding of global public health. Instead of coding changes, Anderson believes doctor education on reporting medical errors could be impactful, as most doctors are reticent to report an error, especially if it led to death.

More Research Funding Could Decrease Medical Error

The Johns Hopkins team is joined by Dr. Tejal Gandhi, President of the National Patient Safety Foundation, in affirming medical error as the third leading cause of death in the U.S. The value of ensuring such errors are acknowledged and aggregated as a cause of death is in research dollars, which hopefully translate into a better understanding of fatal medical errors and a reduction in the error themselves. Without public recognition of the huge impact of medical errors on lives, policy decisions and research funding will never be allotted. Without additional funding, life-saving information cannot be gathered, and improvements to health care can not be made.

If your loved one lost his or her life due to medical error, the medical malpractice and wrongful death attorneys at Wagner Reese can help you seek justice. Our job is to make sure financial obligations don’t prevent your family from grieving and healing. We offer a no-cost, risk-free consultation and encourage you to call our Indianapolis-based attorneys today: (888) 204-8440.


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