Some say that US healthcare is the best in the world, often using this rallying cry as a means to prevent changes to the system. However, last week a report published in The BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) suggested that medical errors in the US may be the third leading cause of death – a fact that may tarnish our healthcare system’s halo.

“Official” Top Causes of Death

According to the annual list produced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the top causes of death in the US are:

  1. Heart disease (24% – about 611,000 deaths per year)
  2. Cancer (23% – about 595,000 deaths)
  3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases (COPD) (about 149,000 deaths)

Medical Errors Kill at Least 251,000 Per Year

The Johns Hopkins University Medical School research published in The BMJ suggests that even by their lowest estimates, about 251,000 people die each year as a result of medical errors, putting that cause in third place above COPD.

Medical errors leading to death can include:

    • Surgical complications or mistakes
    • Medication overdoses
    • Pharmaceutical interactions
    • Diagnostic errors
    • Poor communication
    • Bad judgment

    Why Aren’t Medical Errors Included In the CDC’s List?

    Even if a doctor admits to medical errors on a patient’s death certificate, only the condition for which the patient sought treatment is tallied by the CDC. According to the CDC’s Chief Of Mortality Statistics Bob Anderson, changing the tallying system would be difficult because it would be inconsistent with the way other countries log causes of death.

    Comparing statistics between countries is critical to disease control. For example, tallying an influenza death instead as a “misdiagnosis” would make it impossible to see how a flu spreads across borders.

    How Tracking Medical Error Deaths Might Help Doctors

    The Johns Hopkins researchers disagree with the idea that medical errors shouldn’t be counted in death statistics. If we have “a vast under-recognition of the place of medical care as the cause of death,” said Dr. Martin Makary, one of the Johns Hopkins researchers, “that informs all our national health priorities and our research grants.”

    Medical Errors Cause Preventable Deaths

    The researchers estimated that somewhere between 10% and 15% of all deaths can be attributed to medical errors. That means up to 400,000 lives could be saved from preventable deaths if medical errors were included in the national conversation about healthcare.