Do You Know the #1 Cause of Accidental Death in the USA?

November 2, 2009
Lisa Schulmeister

The answer may surprise you.

Preventable medical errors and injuries (or as some refer to them, "medical mistakes") are the leading cause of accidental death in the US. The death toll from these preventable events is estimated—by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—to be around 200,000 per year, with almost half of these patients succumbing to hospital-acquired infections. Motor vehicle deaths causes around 43,000 deaths each year, and the next three causes combined (poisoning, firearms, and falls) accounted for 90,000 deaths last year.

Hearst Newspapers Corporation recently investigated national and state level health regulations, reporting requirements, and available report data. Investigators found that a few states, such as California, have a number of regulations in place, but hospitals often ignore these regulations because there is no enforcement and no penalty for non-compliance. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have mandatory reporting systems and five states are in the process of forming such systems. But only five of the 20 (Washington, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado, and Indiana) reveal the names of the hospitals. Twenty states have no reporting requirements and the remaining five states have, or are initiating, voluntary reporting.

The Hearst data analysis, published in August 2009, indicated that in five states served by Hearst newspapers (New York, California, Texas, Washington, and Connecticut), only about 20% of 1,434 hospitals surveyed participate in national safety campaigns. Hearst used experts to conduct a detailed analysis of discharge records that are available in those five states and found major deficiencies in the data that hospitals collect and report. And although data was lacking in many cases, there was still enough to determine that 16% of the hospitals had one or more deaths occur from complications following commonly-performed, non-emergency procedures. One of the most disturbing reports was of a patient who died after she was inadvertently injected with a cleaning fluid.

The Hearst report reminds us that preventable medical errors and injuries are in fact, preventable. Leaving healthcare safety improvements up to providers and individual institutions has proved inadequate. Perhaps it's time to have national governmental regulations and reporting.