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A new study reveals that medical error — a category not currently recorded on death certificates in the US at all — takes a frightening number of lives each year, making it the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer.

What do you think the leading causes of death are in the US? If you guessed heart disease, cancer, COPD, suicide, firearms and vehicle accidents, you'd be right. You wouldn't, however, have the full story. The third-leading cause of death is one that currently appears on no death certificate, because no International Classification of Disease (ICD) code was ever designated for it, and that has been woefully understudied and underreported... until now?

That cause of death is medical error. You read that right: medical error is more likely to cost you your life in the US than COPD, guns, and car accidents! 

Exactly How Many US People Die From Medical Error?

So, how many people due due to medical errors on an annual basis in the United States? Doctors Martin Makary and Michael Daniel, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore analyzed currently available medical literature to find out. Publishing their findings in The BMJ,  the results revealed that the leading causes of death in the US as published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention leave a gaping hole in their data. According to Makary and Daniel, an enormous and I dare say utterly shocking 251,454 people die as the result of medical error each year.

What Is Medical Error?

As the research team pointed out, "medical error" is a complex concept that encompasses rather a few different situations:

  • An unintended act, either an failure to carry out what should have been done or doing something that shouldn't have, or an act that does not lead to the expected outcome
  • A failure to implement a plan or the wrong plan being put in place
  • A deviation from the process of care

Medical error is, to some extent, inevitable — doctors are people, and people working in one of the most high-pressure environments in the world at that, and people make errors. Not all errors are lethal, as the researchers are quick to point out, and some are indeed quite inconsequential. With their research, however, the authors are hoping to raise awareness of preventable medical errors and the very deadly consequences they carry. 

Why Didn't We Know About This?

The International Classification of Disease system was put in place back in 1949. "At that time," co-author Makary noted, "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." As such, "medical error" never found itself on the list of causes of death. 

The ICM system isn't just used in the US, but also in 116 other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, highlighting that the shocking discoveries these researchers made could well be replicated many times over across the world. In other to work towards preventing needless deaths, this reporting system needs to be fixed. 

The study reaches the following conclusion:

"Sound scientific methods, beginning with an assessment of the problem, are critical to approaching any health threat to patients. The problem of medical error should not be exempt from this scientific approach. More appropriate recognition of the role of medical error in patient death could heighten awareness and guide both collaborations and capital investments in research and prevention."

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