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In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control compiles a list of the leading causes of death every year. Medical errors aren't counted. If they were, they would be the third most common cause of death in the US.

Nick was taken to a small rural hospital after suffering a widowmaker heart attack. There was a thunderstorm outside, and it would be several hours until a helicopter could arrive to take him to a regional hospital for surgery. Nick's doctor knew he was an Oxycontin addict, so she gave him just 1/10 of the usual dose of naloxone to cancel out its effects. Oxycontin stops pain. Naloxone cancels its effects. Nick began screaming in agony, and died a few minutes later.

Convenience store worker Dave was shot in the neck in a holdup. He was rushed into the ER, where only a first-year resident was available to start emergency surgery. Working solo, the resident tied off a major blood vessel to stop bleeding, but when a more senior surgeon arrived to continue the procedure, no one mentioned that bleeding had stopped because the vessel was tied off. The senior surgical team continued the surgery and noted that there was no bleeding. Dave died a few hours later because of lack of blood flow to his brain.

Susan was released from the hospital after a successful heart transplant. During a routine test for tissue rejection a few weeks later, the surgeon threaded a catheter into her liver instead of her heart, and she died of a balloon-like rupture in an artery to her liver a few days after that. The coroner noted that the doctor simply didn't have the basic skills to do the procedure.

Jonas was thrown through a windshield in a car crash, and brought into the ER covered with blood. The nurse put a cuff on his arm to monitor his blood pressure while doctors worked feverishly to deal with bleeding from his head and neck. They sewed up their patient, satisfied with his blood pressure. Then as the nurse was taking Jonas to a hospital room in the elevator, she noticed the blood pressure cuff was soaked with blood. She lifted the cup. A severed artery in Jonas's arm that had been under the cuff bled out before the doctors could get back to the ER bay.

Robert desperately needed treatment for a blocked blood vessel in his heart, but didn't have insurance. The hospital gave him the procedure, but the surgeon's practice had to pay about $400 for the stent. To save $100, the surgeon gave him a stent that wasn't coated with a drug to prevent the formation of scar tissue,. even though the surgical nurse stopped the procedure and questioned the reason for choosing the uncoated stent. "Robert is financially challenged," the surgeon said. This doctor then prescribed an anticoagulant that should not be used with an uncoated stent. Like 2 percent of all heart patients given this combination of stent and drug, Robert died of a heart attack three weeks later when the stent was blocked by blood clots.

In 2013, a grand total of 2,597,000 people died in the United States. There were 611,000 deaths from heart disease. There were 597,000 deaths from cancer. And there were, a professor and fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine estimate, 251,000 deaths from medical error, making it the third most common cause of death in the United States. More people die from medical error than from suicide, homicide, respiratory diseases, infections, diabetes, sepsis, or car crashes. But the Centers for Disease Control don't include medical errors in their annual compilation of causes of death, not a single case. Why is such a common cause of death ignored by the CDC?

Medical Error Is Not Covered in the Medical Billing Codes

In most of the world, codes for medical services are used to track medical care. In the United States, codes for medical services are used to track medical bills. Fortunately, as of yet, in the United States there is no additional charge to a patient for death by medical error. However, in the United States there is also no ICD-10 code for medical error as a cause of death. None of the millions of death certificates issued by doctors, medical examiners, coroners, or funeral home directors has a code for doctor error, so disease or injury is always listed as the cause of death, no matter how outrageous medical care may have been. The CDC simply never collects data the doctor mistakes that kill over 250,000 Americans every year.

What Is a Medical Error?

Experts define medical error as an unintended act of omission or commission that causes a plan of treatment to be unsuccessful. ("Intentional" medical error resulting in death, which is rare, would be classified as homicide.) Medical errors include failures of execution of valid treatment plans due to lack of skill. They include treatment failures due to the lack of a valid treatment plan when the doctor misses a diagnosis or simply doesn't understand a disease. They include deviations in the process of care. 

Medical errors don't always result in death. However, nearly a thousand people every day, some of whom had a long life expectancy, die as the result of medical mistakes. A medical error may or may not rise to the level of medical malpractice. Malpractice lawyers in many states can't do anything unless a death is clearly caused by the doctor's mistake, and claims may have to follow a strict, complicated, and time-limited process in multiple courts of law. However, identifying medical errors could at least lead to prevention of other deaths in the future.

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