Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine have put medical errors in a whole new light. The study concluded that, if properly recorded and accounted for, medical errors would be the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Authors of the study are using their findings to pressure the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, to add medical errors and fatal lapses in proper medical care as a category on its annual listing of top causes of death in the country. If it did, the 250,000 deaths linked to medical errors per year would make the category the third leading cause of death, behind only heart disease and cancer.
According to the study, the CDC’s tracking system has no way of accounting for fatalities caused by day-to-day medical operations like breakdowns in communication among medical staff, failures or errors in diagnosis, or poor medical judgement. The result is a skewed system that fails to call attention to the extent of the problem. “You have this over-appreciation and overestimate of things like cardiovascular disease, and a vast under-recognition of the place of medical care as the cause of death,” said the study’s lead author. “That informs all of our national health priorities and our research grants.”
The CDC’s chief of the mortality statistics branch of the agency disputed the study’s claims and argued that medical care complications are listed on death certificates and that agency codes do capture those complications for tracking. However, data indicates that while that may be true, the underlying disease or reason the patient sought treatment is used as the actual cause of death in the event of a fatality and not the errors or other issues that may have arisen from the lapse in care.