Study: Medical error causes 250K deaths a year

Mistakes are unavoidable, but many underestimate their impact on patient safety and wellbeing. A study from Johns Hopkins Medicine places medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

The research, published May 3 in The BMJ, estimates more than 250,000 people die each year from medical mistakes. Such a figure would be behind only cancer and heart disease, each responsible for roughly 600,000 deaths, in overall deaths in the U.S., according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study argued the CDC’s coding system doesn’t allow for medical care to be listed as a cause of death, which leaves it underappreciated by the general public. Deaths caused by mistakes such as surgical complications or medication mix-ups are rarely reported.

CDC mortality statistics are based only on underlying causes of death, meaning the condition that led an individual to seek treatment. Even if medical error is listed on a death certificate, CDC totals do not publish annual aggregates.

The study suggested, “[i]nstead of simply requiring cause of death, death certificates could contain an extra field asking whether a preventable complication stemming from the patient’s medical care contributed to the death.”