Each year, more than 250,000 deaths in the United States occur as a result of medical error, making it the third leading cause of death in the country. This is the conclusion of a new study published in The BMJ.

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Researchers say medical error is the third leading cause of death in America, after heart disease and cancer.

Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compile a list of the leading causes of death in the U.S., based on information recorded on death certificates.

However, medical error does not currently feature on death certificates. This is because there is no International Classification of Disease (ICD) code – a tool used to classify causes of death, adopted in the U.S. in 1949 – assigned to medical error.

“At that time, it was under-recognized that diagnostic errors, medical mistakes and the absence of safety nets could result in someone’s death, and because of that, medical errors were unintentionally excluded from national health statistics,” explains study co-author Martin Makary, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD.

Since the ICD system is used to inform mortality statistics for 117 countries – including the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada – there is limited data on the number of deaths attributable to medical error.

With the aim of addressing this data gap, Makary and his colleague Michael Daniel – also of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine – analyzed the results of four studies that assessed the rate of medical death in the U.S. between 2000-2008.

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This infographic highlights medical error as the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
Image credit: The BMJ 2016

One of these studies, the authors note, was from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Combining that data with the number of hospital admission rates that occurred in the U.S. in 2013, the researchers estimated that 251,454 deaths occur as a result of medical error each year.

They point out that the CDC list of the leading causes of death in the U.S. puts heart disease at the top (responsible for 611,105 deaths), cancer as the second leading cause (548,881 deaths), and chronic respiratory disease as the third leading cause of death (149,205 deaths).

Therefore, the annual rate of medical error deaths of 251,454 estimated in this study suggests medical error is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

Based on their results, the authors call for medical errors to be classified as a separate cause of death on medical certificates – a move that would enable researchers and public health organizations to better understand the scale of the problem.

“Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country’s research funding and public health priorities,” notes Makary. “Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don’t appear on the list, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves.”

As the authors point out, it is impossible to eliminate human error, but they say it is possible to better measure the issue in order to identify ways to reduce medical errors.

As well as recording medical errors on death certificates to achieve this, they suggest death certificates could incorporate an additional field that asks whether a complication leading to a patient’s death could have been prevented.

Furthermore, they suggest hospitals could conduct fast and efficient independent investigations upon patient death, in order to determine whether error played a role.

The authors conclude:

Sound scientific methods, beginning with an assessment of the problem, are critical to approaching any health threat to patients. The problem of medical error should not be exempt from this scientific approach.

More appropriate recognition of the role of medical error in patient death could heighten awareness and guide both collaborations and capital investments in research and prevention.”

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