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Medical Errors the Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

New study highlights shortcomings in medical error reporting

While many people would not be surprised to hear that heart disease and cancer are leading causes of death, many would be surprised to find out that one of the leading causes of death in the United States is completely preventable: medical errors. According to a study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, medical errors are the third leading cause of death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 600,000 people died from heart disease and cancer in 2014. In comparison, medical errors are estimated to have claimed 250,000 lives in the same year. However, researchers believe that these deaths are not properly tracked, causing a potential underestimate for this cause of death and leading to research being hindered in the process. Ultimately, this allows many individuals to continue to die because of preventable medical errors while keeping the public largely shielded from this information.

One problem with accurately estimating this cause of death is that the coding system that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not encapsulate information based on these types of death, such as highlighting when communication breakdowns are to blame, diagnostic errors contributed to death or impaired judgment affected medical treatment decisions. Medical errors encompass a wide array of mistakes, including reacting poorly to a surgical complication, misdiagnosing patients, prescribing the wrong kind of medication and prescribing wrong dosages of medication. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention death certificate data does not specify these issues.

Instead, the published statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention count the underlying cause of death, which is the condition that caused a person to seek treatment. In this process, if a coroner lists medical errors on a death certificate, but this was not the underlying cause of death, this death is not included in the total number of deaths that the CDC publishes. Rather, such a death would be included in the counts for cancer, heart disease or other condition that led the patient to seek medical treatment in the first place.

The study researchers state that being unable to capture the full impact of medical errors causes the issue not to receive the public attention that it deserves and camouflages the need for further research. Other professionals in the healthcare industry believe that more funding would be available if there was greater public education on the matter. The researchers suggest adding an additional box on death certificates that would allow the person completing it to mark whether a medical error contributed to death. The researchers believe that this box would allow for a more accurate count of deaths that were suspected of involving a medical error.

Some proponents argue that the researchers are estimating that the death count is not accurate as it is too high. Additionally, they argue that the CDC reporting method is similar to that of other countries and should not be amended without a compelling reason to do so. Due to the difficulty in accurately counting the number of deaths due to medical errors, the researchers urge further research needs to be conducted on the subject.

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