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New Research About Fatal Medical Errors

Several studies have been conducted to understand the scope of medical mistakes in the U.S. health care industry. Recent research suggests the problem is much larger than previously thought. It suggests that medical mistakes are the third most common cause of death in the country, following heart disease and cancer. According to the research appearing in the Journal of Patient Safety, medical errors cause somewhere between 210,000 and 440,000 deaths every year. That covers situations where a mistake leads to preventable harm contributing to the death of the patient.

The estimates for deaths caused by medical errors have increased over time. A 1999 study from the Institute of Medicine suggested that 98,000 people a year died from mistakes made in hospitals. A 2010 study from the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services suggested that poor hospital care was tied to 180,000 deaths per year just among those in the Medicare system. Given that number, the recent estimate should not come as a surprise.

The medical community initially balked at the 1999 study. The American Hospital Association now suggests that the IOM study is superior to those providing higher estimates. The truth is that medical mistakes leading to death are not carefully tracked. Doctors and hospitals have little incentive to be forthright about fatal medical mistakes. Without a reliable and mandatory reporting system, estimates of the total number rely on sampling and approximations.

The study pointed out that high end of the approximation, 440,000 deaths, would mean that 1 out of every 6 deaths in the U.S. was attributable to medical error. Regardless of which estimate is used, the truth is that fatal medical errors are far too common.

Source: NPR, "How Many Die From Medical Mistakes In U.S. Hospitals?," 20 September 2013

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