Medical Errors: A Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

We like to tell ourselves that we value life.  When a tragedy occurs, we often search for solutions to try and prevent it from occurring again.  Highway safety is a good example.  Around 40,000 people die in highway accidents each year.  We rightly concluded that we must take action.  We legislated safety features for cars to reduce the chance that someone will die in a car accident.  Cars are so much safer today that the number of auto deaths last year was almost the same as in 1950, even though our population is more than double what it was in 1950.  Sadly, our response to deaths caused by medical malpractice is feeble by comparison.  Frankly, it is feeble whether in comparison or not.

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Heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the United States.  We have national campaigns to reduce these deaths.  We spend billions on medical research and public education to address heart disease and cancer.  In third place is death due to medical error.  Think of that.  Fully one-third of all the people who die in the United States die because of a medical error.  Why isn’t the public up in arms?  Why are we not addressing this?  The answer is that the medical profession is not eager to let the public know about the number of medical errors and the deaths they cause.

As the article to which I linked states, there is no general agreement on the number of deaths due to medical error.  A study by Johns Hopkins puts the number of annual deaths at approximately 250,000.  Other reports put the number as high as 440,000.  Either number is a scandal which calls out to be addressed.

Neither hospitals nor doctors are required to report when a patient has died due to a medical error.  Members of the medical profession decide on the cause of death which appears on the death certificate.  Members of the medical profession tell the family of the patient what happened.  It is not in the professional or financial interest of doctors or hospitals to admit when mistakes have been made.  On the contrary, it is much better just to sweep the death under the rug and attribute it to something other than a mistake.  The medical profession is not going to admit its mistakes until forced to do so.

So why do our elected representatives allow them to get away with keeping these secrets?  As usual, it’s the money, stupid.  The medical profession has deep pockets and many lobbyists.  It is unlikely that politicians for whom campaign donations are life’s blood are going to offend the medical profession by requiring it to admit its mistakes.  Rather than forcing the medical profession to admit its mistakes, politicians are anxious to make it harder to find out about mistakes and harder still to get justice when a patient or the patient’s family discover medical malpractice.  Just take a look at the Republican malpractice bill that passed this Congress last year.

It is up to us to ask questions and be informed consumers of medical care.  That is a tall order because doctors and hospitals hide behind walls of secrecy and medical mumbo-jumbo.  We also have to push our elected officials to act to reduce the toll of medical errors and the best first step is to require honest reporting of medical errors, when they occur.

Most doctors and hospitals are trying to do the right thing.  Notwithstanding that, medical errors will occur.  We have to get them out in the open and learn from them.  Medical errors swept under the rug are guaranteed to happen again and again.


Posted in Autopsy, Cancer, disclosure of medical mistakes, Doctors, Hospital Negligence, Hospitals, medical errors, medical ethics, Medical Malpractice, medical mistakes, Medical Negligence, Secrecy, Surgical Errors, tort reform |