The 3rd Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. Is Medical Errors

A new report says errors by medical personnel are the third leading cause of deaths in the U.S.

Surgery, old-school

Let’s get right to it: The third leading cause of death in the United States in 2013 was medical error. So we’ve got cancer, heart disease, and then the people who are trying to cure you. According to a study done by patient safety experts at Johns Hopkins and published by BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), you’re more likely to be killed by a doctor in the U.S. than by lower respiratory disease. Or an accident. Or a stroke. Or Alzheimer’s, diabetes, flu and pneumonia, or kidney disease.

Of course, everyone makes mistakes, even highly trained medical personnel, and the causes for the fatalities range from insufficient communication to plain-old human error and accidents. But if over 250,000 Americans die each year die as the result of medical mistakes—that’s 9.7% of all the yearly deaths in the U.S—we’ve got a problem.

This comes as something of a surprise because medical errors don’t even appear on the list of leading causes of death.

When the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) collects statistics from death certificates each year, they cull only the ICD (International Classification of Disease) code for the underlying cause of death—that is, the condition being treated—and fail to include any mistakes that were made, even though these errors may be noted on a patient’s death certificate. This is due to a methodology established in 1949, as lead researcher Martin Makary explained to EurekAlert: ”At that time, it was under-recognized that diagnostic errors, medical mistakes and the absence of safety nets could result in someone's death, and because of that, medical errors were unintentionally excluded from national health statistics.” In fact, Makary says, "Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven't been recognized in any standardized method for collecting national statistics.”

The Johns Hopkins team was able to see a truer picture by going through four studies conducted between 2000 through 2008 to figure out the number of lethal medical errors in the U.S. in those years. Comparing that figure to hospital admission records for the period, they arrived at a percentage value. When they applied that percentage to admission data from 2013, they calculated that there were 251,454 deaths in that year.

  • U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Roy Rice
  • With this new perspective, the challenge is to find a solution that protects patients’ lives. The CDC’s list of leading killers is a major influence on funding for research and in establishing healthcare priorities, with the worst illnesses receiving the most attention. But deaths from medical errors aren’t even on the list. The Johns Hopkins report concludes in what has to be seen as something of an understatement, “We have estimated that medical error is the third biggest cause of death in the US and therefore requires greater attention.” (Emphasis added.)

    With the new report, Makary told the Washington Post, “"We all know how common it is. We also know how infrequently it’s openly discussed ... Measuring the problem is the absolute first step."

    A brief history of human dignity

    What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

    Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
    Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
    • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
    • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
    • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
    Keep reading Show less

    Astrophysicists: Gamma-ray jets exceed the speed of light

    Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.

    An artist's drawing of a particle jet emanating from a black hole at the center of a blazar.

    Credit: DESY, Science Communication Lab (used with permission by Astronomy Picture of the Day, which is co-managed by Robert Nemiroff at Michigan Tech).
    Surprising Science
    • Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
    • The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
    • The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
    Keep reading Show less

    Scientists find the "magic number" that links forces of the universe

    Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.

    The Universe and the fine-structure constant.

    Credit: Adobe
    Surprising Science
    • A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
    • This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
    • The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
    Keep reading Show less

    A new system separates oxygen and hydrogen from Mars’ water

    Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.

    Illustration of Mars' long-gone Jezero Lake

    Technology & Innovation
    • Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
    • Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
    • The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.
    Keep reading Show less

    How officials will ensure the COVID-19 vaccine stays cold enough in transit

    Pfizer's vaccine needs to be kept at -100°F until it's administered. Can caregivers deliver?

    Scroll down to load more…