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Billy Cunningham
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Will the Medical/Hospital Community Address the 250,000 Deaths by Medical Errors?

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I am certain others have written about the report from Johns Hopkins that medical errors cause more than 250,000 deaths every year in the United States, enough to make them the nation’s third-leading cause of death. http://www.futurity.org/medical-errors-deaths-1157152/ But why are they the third leading cause of death? Why do medical mistakes come in third in causing deaths in the US – after heart disease and cancer?

The report is disconcerting because it appears that hospitals do not actually record deaths using the term “medical error.” Is that for the obvious reason that they do not want to admit medical error on a death certificate or any other kind of report? Or is it because using the present system of codes for generating bills and collecting insurance premiums and billing is more important? That is where the results of the Johns Hopkins study were gleaned from — a reporting system used to generate bills and collect insurance premiums.

In another article, it is reported from a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Practitioner Data Bank, which covers all 50 states and the District of Columbia, that states have different and often widely varied disciplinary actions against doctors. http://www.futurity.org/doctors-discipline-1126012/ . That article references that patients assume oversight of doctors is well-regulated in all states, that all doctors are held to the same ethical standards and disciplined appropriately when needed. But that is not the case.

While the study about hospital errors does not blame bad doctors, are both issues related? There seems to be more interest by consumer groups to have these issues looked into.

Martin Makary, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine suggests in the article that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should adopt updated criteria for classifying deaths on death certificates. He is quoted in the article as saying “Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven’t been recognized in any standardized method for collecting national statistics,”

The researchers performed their calculations based on eight years of US medical death rate data. This study was published in the journal BMJ, http://www.bmj.com/content/353/bmj.i2139 on May 3, 2016. In it researchers examined four separate studies that analyzed medical death rate data from 2000 to 2008, including one by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.  They extrapolated that based on a total of 35,416,020 hospitalizations, 251,454 deaths stemmed from a medical error, which the researchers say now translates to 9.5 percent of all deaths each year in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov/ in 2013, 611,105 people died of heart disease, 584,881 died of cancer and 149,205 died of chronic respiratory disease—the top three causes of death in the United States. This study puts medical errors behind cancer but ahead of respiratory disease. The article says non-medical causes of death like accidents are not numerous enough to crack the top three. That means you are more likely to die due to a hospital error than in a car wreck. You are more likely to die while being treated by trained medical personnel at a hospital than by texting drivers! WOW!

The researchers believe that most errors represent systemic problems, including poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or underuse of safety nets, and other protocols, in addition to unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns that lack accountability. That is so even though we have all sorts of rules and regulations designed to make your hospital stay safer. The Joint Commission(JCAHO) Standards and the National Patient Safety Goals (NPSG) as well numerous state rules and regulations are there for the medical profession to follow and to protect you. I hate to imagine where we would be without them.


Dr, Makary in the article summarizes by telling us that unwarranted variation is endemic in health care. He admonishes that there is a need to develop consensus protocols that streamline the delivery of medicine and reduce variability which can improve quality and lower costs in health care. He also advocates more research on preventing medical errors from occurring is needed to address the problem.

Does the medical profession and hospitals agree with Dr. Makary’s conclusion? I hope so. As a trial attorney who regularly reviews medical records and who tries medical cases, I see the sad results of medical errors. No one wants to be a statistic in future research. No one wants to believe it can happen to them. Someone needs to do the research and get proposals that will lessen the likelihood of these errors. Hopefully, the Johns Hopkins study will be the impetus for further research and action.