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Medical Errors Become a Leading Cause of Death in the United States

medical errors third leading cause of death in united statesHere’s an interesting game to play at your next party – ask everyone to list the top three causes of death in the United States. Odds are that you’d get a very eclectic mix of responses.

If media reports were to be believed, murder would have to be pretty far up there. Local news thrives on the idea that you live in a very dangerous world (no matter where you happen to live) so they give you all the grisly details every night at 6. Car collisions would likely come up once or twice as well.

However, the top two actual answers are less than obvious and number three…well, number three hasn’t been on anyone’s radar until quite recently.

Heart disease and cancer take the top two spots for 2014, respectively, and the separation is not nearly as wide as you’d think. In fact, the two are separated by less than 20,000.

Number three is medical errors.

In 2014, according to research cited at Propublica, an estimated 251,454 Americans lost their lives because of errors made by those charged with their health care. That’s enough to put medical errors among the top three leading causes of death in, what some argue, is the world’s only superpower.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins wondered what would happen if “medical error” became a documented cause of death on a deceased person’s death certificate. As it stands right now, the cause of death is the thing that actually kills the patient – not the underlying cause. But, when you link those two together, the quarter of a million people that died because of a mistake made by a medical professional slowly begin to have their voices heard.

The authors of the study want a new line added to death certificates that specifically addresses whether the cause of death was due to a medical complication that could have been prevented.

Doctors, obviously, aren’t keen on supporting such a change and say that such a measure won’t actually solve anything.

Regardless, all parties agree that continued education is needed and measures should be taken to illustrate the size and scope of the problem. “If we can clarify for the public and lawmakers how big a problem these errors are,” says University of Texas Houston Medical School professor Dr. Eric Thomas, “you would hope it would lead to more resources toward patient safety.”