Medical Errors are the Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

If medical errors were counted as a disease, they would be among one of the most deadly conditions affecting Americans. Incredibly, a new report reveals that medical errors comprise the third leading cause of death in the U.S. exceeded only by heart disease and cancer. 

This new assessment comes after investigators from Johns Hopkins University looked at causes of death in a new way. Currently, death certificates do not include medical error as a cause of death. So if a poorly performed diagnostic test caused a liver injury which led to cardiac arrest, for example, the cause of death would be listed as cardiovascular, not the original issue: medical error.

But when you dig into the data you find some 250,000 deaths per year that can be attributed to medical errors. This includes deaths going back to diagnostic errors, communication breakdowns, the failure to do necessary tests, medication dosage errors and other improper procedures.

The investigators acknowledge that human error is inevitable, but say “although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences.”

The researchers proposed several solutions that they believe will ultimately minimize errors. They include practical measures like including an extra field on a death certificate that asks if the death stemmed from a preventable complication due to medical care. They also recommend hospitals carry out independent investigations to determine the potential contribution of error. 

But, those solutions are all too late for the affected person. So what can you do to protect yourself?

  1. Know that medicine is not perfect. Even the most well intentioned care can go wrong. So don’t be lured into thinking that more tests and treatments are always better. Sometimes it’s best–and safest–to do less. 
  1. Be your own best advocate. No one cares more about your well-being than you. Pay attention to what’s going on and make sure you understand the proposed treatments and procedures, including potential side effects and complications.
  1. Engage in efforts that help prevent disease so you need less of this imperfect system.

Medications and procedures are not a pre-ordained reality as we age. Don’t smoke. Move your body. Eat foods that promote health. That’s the secret to healthy longevity. It’s also the secret to avoiding medical errors.


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