Medical Error—the Third Leading Cause of Death in the US

BMJ 2016;353:i2139

The annual list of the most common causes of death in the United States, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), informs public awareness and national research priorities each year. The list is created using death certificates filled out by physicians, funeral directors, medical examiners, and coroners. However, a major limitation of the death certificate is that it relies on assigning an International Classification of Disease (ICD) code to the cause of death.1 As a result, causes of death not associated with an ICD code, such as human and system factors, are not captured. The science of safety has matured to describe how communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors, poor judgment, and inadequate skill can directly result in patient harm and death. We analyzed the scientific literature on medical error to identify its contribution to US deaths in relation to causes listed by the CDC.

The most commonly cited estimate of annual deaths from medical error in the US—a 1999 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report—is limited and outdated. The report describes an incidence of 44 000­98 000 deaths annually. This conclusion was not based on primary research conducted by the institute but on the 1984 Harvard Medical Practice Study and the 1992 Utah and Colorado Study. But as early as 1993, Leape, a chief investigator in the 1984 Harvard study, published an article arguing that the study’s estimate was too low, contending that 78% rather than 51% of the 180 000 iatrogenic deaths were preventable (some argue that all iatrogenic deaths are preventable). This higher incidence (about 140 400 deaths due to error) has been supported by subsequent studies which suggest that the 1999 IOM report underestimates the magnitude of the problem. A 2004 report of inpatient deaths associated with the Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research Patient Safety Indicators in the Medicare population estimated that 575 000 deaths were caused by medical error between 2000 and 2002, which is about 195 000 deaths a year. Similarly, the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General examining the health records of hospital inpatients in 2008, reported 180 000 deaths due to medical error a year among Medicare beneficiaries alone. Using similar methods, Classen et al described a rate of 1.13%.

If this rate is applied to all registered US hospital admissions in 2013 it translates to over 400 000 deaths a year, more than four times the IOM estimate.

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