Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer, accounting for more than 250,000 deaths every year, according to a recent, nationwide study. However, the study's authors note that such figures could be even higher since death certificates in the United States do not include medical errors as a cause of death.
"We believe this (data) understates the true incidence of death due to medical error because the studies cited rely on errors extractable in documented health records and include only inpatient deaths," the study's authors wrote in the article published by The BMJ, a peer-reviewed, medical journal previously known as The British Medical Journal.
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Associate Professor, Dr. Martin A. Makary, and Johns Hopkins research fellow Michael Daniel conducted the study and wrote the BMJ article analyzing medical errors. Makary and Daniel based their findings on four, large studies analyzing cause of death statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since 1999, according to The Washington Post. Using such data, the authors then created nationwide estimates for medical errors based on the total number of hospital admissions in 2013, according to CNBC.
Doctors, medical examiners, funeral directors and corners have a long list of choices for "cause of death" when filling out a death certificate. However, there is no official disease code for "medical errors" on the causes of death list on death certificates. As a result, the CDC and other government agencies do not track how many patients die as a result of medical errors, according to CNBC.
"Humans will always make mistakes, and we shouldn't expect them not to," Makary said in an interview with The New York Times. "But we can engineer safe medical care to create the safety nets and protocols to address the human factor. Measuring the magnitude of the problem is the first step."
As part of their study, Makary and Daniel cited the case of a woman who died as a result of mistakes made during tests conducted by health care professionals. Specifically, the autopsy found that the woman died due to internal bleeding caused by a needle accidentally inserted into the women's liver. However, the cause of death was listed as cardiovascular related, not due to a medical error.
Analysis of medical malpractice lawsuits reveals possible patterns
As part of their research, Makary and Daniel also analyzed data complied by The Doctors Company, a physician-owned medical malpractice insurance company. The Doctors Company reviewed more than 10,000 medical malpractice lawsuits in an effort to find possible patterns in such cases and determine if there are ways to prevent similar injuries in the future.
By reviewing past medical malpractice cases, the researchers with The Doctors Company were able to notice trends that would have otherwise been missed. Some hospitals and other medical professionals changed their practices based on such findings in an effort to improve the level of care. This includes Bassett Healthcare Network in Cooperstown, New York, which used data from closed, medical malpractice claims to create a registry of such cases, according to The Wall Street Journal. By doing so, Bassett Healthcare Network has been able to better educate patients about the risks associated with certain medications. In the past, some patients were not properly educated about the risks of taking such medications, according to Bassett's analysis of previous medical malpractice lawsuits.
"This has really transformed my practice," Sandeep Mangalmurti, a noninvasive cardiologist affiliated with Bassett Healthcare Network, said to The Wall Street Journal.
But more needs to be done in hospitals nationwide to prevent such preventable causes of death, according to The Doctors Company and Makary and Daniel. And even when medical professionals clearly make mistakes resulting in the death of a patient, many surgeons, doctors and other health care providers are reluctant to admit wrongdoing. That's why many families choose to hire a medical malpractice lawyer to represent their family in such legal proceedings. Otherwise, the family might not receive the financial compensation they deserve for medical bills, lost income, lost future earnings and other expenses often associated with the death of a loved one due to medical errors.
Such cases are about more than just money, though. By filing a wrongful death lawsuit against a hospital or individual medical professional, such legal action could change the hospital's negligent practices and prevent similar injuries or illnesses in the future.