When a 2016 Johns Hopkins study claimed medical errors could be responsible for more than 250,000 deaths per year, researchers warned the number was an educated guess. The death toll could be higher, they theorized, considering the secrecy that often shrouds fatal doctor mistakes. And according to other reports, it probably is.
Data from Patient Safety America (PSA) estimates the number to be much higher: 440,000. The study marked errors as vastly underreported given that physicians, medical examiners, and coroners rarely note medical errors on death certificates: the documentation on which health officials rely to gather national health statistics. Independent research finds that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States, but the CDC’s top 10 list follows heart disease and cancer with chronic lower respiratory disease.
The Johns Hopkins team appealed to the CDC to update their criteria for classifying deaths, but to date, the problem isn’t getting the funding it needs. Researchers continue fighting to kick the CDC into gear.
An ‘Evidence-Based’ Call for Transparency and Accountability
Like Johns Hopkins, other researchers have conducted studies to adjust outdated data from the Institute of Medicine, which estimated in 1984 that preventable medical errors cause 98,000 deaths.
The PSA study more than quadrupled this rate after analyzing evidence flagged by the Global Trigger Tool, a method that measures adverse events and levels of patient harm. Researchers found a minimum limit of 210,000 deaths associated with medical errors in hospitals. However, noting “incompleteness” in medical records on which the Trigger Tool depends, the true number of deaths could exceed 440,000. This number creeps even closer to the nation’s second-leading cause of death, cancer, which kills 595,930.
“The epidemic of patient harm in hospitals must be taken more seriously if it is to be curtailed,” wrote study author John T. James, Ph.D. “Fully engaging patients and their advocates during hospital care, systematically seeking the patients’ voice in identifying harms, transparent accountability for harm, and intentional correction of root causes of harm will be necessary to accomplish this goal.”
But several years on from this study, doctors are still figuring out how to implement such straightforward strategies.
The Errors Doctors Don’t Want You to Know about
Martin Makary, MD, who led the Johns Hopkins study, defined deaths by medical error as those caused by errors in judgment, inadequate skill, preventable adverse effects, or what he and other experts call a “fragmented” healthcare system.
“It’s the system more than the individuals that is to blame,” Makary said, while a doctor interviewed in a recent CNBC report noted systematic issues with medication errors, saying “Any tools that enable patients to manage their healthcare needs will be a game changer.”
But medication errors are just 1 type of medical malpractice that goes unnoticed. Makary admits that fault does lie with doctors themselves for errors involving unnecessary medical care (which he found constitutes 20 percent of all procedures), miscommunication with patients, and worryingly, bribes to promote drug companies’ products.
Getting a Handle on Patient Safety: Is It a United Effort?
Rather than push all responsibility onto patients to manage their healthcare needs, patient safety advocates interviewed by CNBC hope for ways to improve medical training and incentivize error reporting.
Thankfully, some hospitals are starting to play their part. Danbury Hospital in Connecticut, for instance, is maximizing health information technology by double-checking electronic records and using fail-safe devices to anticipate harmful incidents. New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital has developed a “Good Catch Award” program to encourage medical personnel to report potential or existing errors.
However, in hospitals yet to grasp safety standards, patients have no choice but to take charge. Besides demanding safer care, transparency, and accountability, as Patient Safety America suggests doctors provide, patients can better prepare for appointments, look out for suspicious signs, and ask for a second opinion on diagnoses. And when only retroactive action is possible for patients who fall victim to medical error, the logical step is to seek justice.