Medical errors among leading causes of death

Doctors call for transparency internationally against silent killer: inadequate patient care

Medical errors could be the third leading cause of death in the US, according to a report by The Globe and the Mail

According to the report, medical errors are often overlooked in annual mortality statistics as death certificates do not record deaths resulting from inadequate patient care. In Canada, the US, and the UK, death certificates use a mortality coding system, the International Classification of Disease code (ICD), which doesn’t reflect deaths caused by medical errors. The IDC is used in medical record-keeping in Canada and 116 other countries.

“People tend to think about an individual doctor’s mistake, but we’re really talking much more broadly about system failures, about wrong diagnosis, about medication errors, and communication breakdowns,” said Professor Martin Makary of Johns Hopkins University in an interview with The Globe and the Mail.

A recent study by Makary and research fellow Michael Daniels puts the estimated number of deaths caused by medical error in 2013 at 251,454. If this number is confirmed, and if medical errors are considered a disease, the researchers said that medical errors would only rank below heart disease and cancer as leading causes of death in the US. 

To enable accurate estimates of medical errors, make health-care systems more reliable, and share findings in the US and the international community, Makary proposed that the health-care industry:
  • Be transparent about errors when they occur so their effects can be arrested;
  • Make remedies available to rescue patients;
  • Add a field to death certificates to note if death is contributed by a preventable complication caused by patient’s medical care; and
  • Have hospitals implement rapid and efficient independent investigation to deaths.
In Canada, a 2004 report found that 7.5 per cent of patients admitted to acute care hospitals in 2000 suffered one or more adverse events, including wrongly administered medications, bed sores, falls, infections, and surgical errors. More recent international studies reveal that adverse events in hospitals are at a rate of between 10 and 14 per cent.