You'll never see a death certificate with the words 'medical error' as the cause of death. But a new study suggests that it could be considered the third biggest cause in the US. And it's not an insignificant issue in Australia either. Image: Stefan Ray
An analysis of causes of death by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine suggests that medical errors — whether a surgical slip, poor prescription or dodgy diagnosis — account for as many as 250,000 deaths that occurred in the US in 2013. That's only beaten by heart disease and cancer, which each account for about 600,000 deaths in the US per year.
It is, of course, incredibly difficult to gain an accurate handle on how many medical errors result in death. In this case, the team studied the medical literature about the prevalence of poor inpatient care in different areas of the medical profession. They then extrapolated those findings out to cover all medical care — though not nursing homes or out-patient care — provided across the US. Their final count of 250,000, published in the British Medical Journal, is therefore very much an estimate. According to some estimates, up to 18,000 Australians die per year due to medical error.
But the researchers use chance to make a fairly compelling argument: That even though it's hard to talk about medical error, it would be incredibly useful to at least provide the chance to more easily report its occurrence as a contribution to death. It is of course impossible to eliminate human error from health care, but by creating an atmosphere in which it can be discussed more freely, it would be possible to develop better protocols and safety measures to avoid it in the first place.
It will, however, be hard to convince hospitals and doctors that the threat of litigation is worth that risk.