Medical error: The third leading cause of death in the U.S., new study says


By pH health care professionals

Heart disease, cancer and …. medical errors? We didn’t see that one coming.

According to findings recently published in the British Medical Journal, medical error is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. At least 250,000 deaths each year can be attributed to medical care gone wrong, the study reported. Medical errors may include getting a drug you’re allergic to or contracting a preventable infection in the hospital.

Jim Rickert, M.D., an orthopedist and president of the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, told Medscape Medical News he was not surprised and that even those calculations don't tell the whole story.

"That doesn't even include doctors' offices and ambulatory care centers," he notes. "That's only inpatient hospitalization resulting in errors," he told Medscape.

This means the problem may be even worse. But not all doctors agree.

Just look at the comments section beneath the Medscape article about the study.

Here is a sample of what doctors are saying (comments have been edited to remove typos or grammatical mistakes):

  • Admitting to a medical error is a legal nightmare. One doctor said: “Dream on. I can only imagine the drooling over this by plaintiff lawyers, who preach there are NO acceptable medical errors and juries just swallow it whole. Only a fool would admit to even a perceived error with no consequences.”
  • The general public should not be steered toward this information because it may hurt doctor-patient relationships. When someone commented about the need to hold clinicians and hospitals responsible, one doctor replied: “You are another person who bought into this tripe; we are wondering why the uninformed nonprofessional public was steered to this particular article - to make all of us go home and say 'good luck with your diseases, ravenous wolves?' Anyone who ever treated me like you can just deliver your own baby and run your own code blue, OK?”
  • Measuring the issue is difficult. “I agree with the majority of people here that this paper/topic is hard to accurately quantify. Medical errors are HUGELY underreported and sometimes it's very hard to tell if one actually caused significant harm or not.” To his last point, the BMJ study aimed to quantify medical errors that resulted in fatalities, so in these cases, the errors did cause significant harm.
  • Specifying the type of error is important. “I think hyper-prescribing drugs (statins, protonic pump inhibitors, cardiovascular drugs, anticoagulant and anti-platelet aggregation drugs, etc.) is the most important source of damage to the patients. The article does not analyze anything of the question”.

The comments go on. There are hundreds, and many of them are quite angry and offended.

But there was one that stood out – an anecdote from a doctor on the other side of the clipboard. In his own words: “Let me tell you about some personal experiences … I recently sat in hospital rooms at the bedside for some friends who had medical issues. And it was a terrible experience. I saw equipment not working right, arrhythmias ignored, anoxia [lack of oxygen] ignored, delirium completely missed. I saw a large glass of juice being given an hour before a surgical procedure – ‘it's OK because the sugar is low’ – really? I saw contraindicated meds being given together. ‘If the VTach [ventricular tachycardia, i.e., a rapid heartbeat] happens, she's in the hospital so it's OK to do this.’ On and on it went.  On and on. ‘Well, don't worry about the latex allergy... If we happen to mess up, we will just resuscitate you and make more money  – ha-ha.’ I didn't think it was funny....   Really, it happened. So my friends are dead now.”   

But at the end of the day, where do we go from here?

  • Admit there’s a problem. As one doctor said: “OK... let's really study this. Health care is far from perfect. Instead of getting angry and dismissing the study, we need to take a good hard look.” That’s a point echoed by Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., author of The Magnesium Miracle, who believes admitting the problem is the first step to getting help. “Doctors do not believe that what they do can possibly be causing harm, so there is going to be a head in the sand attitude and significant denial, which means the problem won’t be fixed because it’s not acknowledged,” she wrote in her email newsletter.
  • Put pressure on hospitals for change. The study authors advocate for public pressure to bring about change. Hospitals and providers don’t have incentive to publicize errors. Many are afraid of getting sued.
  • Report and measure the problem so it can be addressed. The authors call for better reporting to help capture the scale of the problem and create strategies for reducing it. One way to report would be changing death certificates to include not just the cause of death, but an extra field asking whether a preventable complication stemming from the patient's care contributed to the death. Human error is inevitable, the authors acknowledge, but "we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences." They add that most errors aren't caused by bad doctors, but by systemic failures and should not be addressed with punishment or legal action, Medscape reported.
  • Enlist the help of a patient advocate. Patients: When something feels wrong, trust your gut and get another qualified opinion. Get a pH Patient Advocate on your side. Your advocate will be one of Proactive Health Labs’ industry-leading medical doctors. Your advocate can give you a second opinion, research your case and help you understand all your treatment options, ensure all of your medical records are available to the treating physician, and catch any red flags that are being missed.

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.