Study: Medical errors unseat respiratory disease as third leading cause of death

Accreditation Insider, May 3, 2016

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A new study conducted by John Hopkins researchers estimates that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is wrong about the third biggest cause of death in the nation. Researchers claim that 250,000 Americans die annually due to medical errors, nearly 100,000 more than those who die of respiratory disease.

The CDC uses the cause of death listed in a person’s death certificate to calculate the leading causes of mortality each year. The John Hopkins team says that since medical errors aren’t listed separately on death certificates, the CDC has been vastly underestimating their impact.

“Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven’t been recognized in any standardized method for collecting national statistics,” study author Martin Makary, MD, MPH, said in a press release. “The medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used.”

To come up with their number, researchers examined four separate studies on medical death rate data from 2000 to 2008, including one by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Combining that data with hospital admission rates from 2013, they extrapolated that out of a total 35,416,020 hospitalizations, 251,454 deaths were caused by a medical error. With this data, medical errors cause 9.5% of all U.S. deaths each year, topped only by heart disease and cancer.

“Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country’s research funding and public health priorities,” says Makary. “Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don’t appear on the list, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves.”

The researchers are advocating for updated criteria for classifying deaths on death certificates, saying that facilities shouldn’t be afraid of being penalized for reporting on medical errors. They write the majority of medical errors “represent systemic problems such as poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or underuse of safety nets and other protocols, in addition to unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns that lack accountability.” They say it’s rarely just due to “a bad doctor.”

 “Unwarranted variation is endemic in healthcare. Developing consensus protocols that streamline the delivery of medicine and reduce variability can improve quality and lower costs in healthcare. More research on preventing medical errors from occurring is needed to address the problem,” says Makary.

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