Medical Errors: The Third Leading Cause of Death in the United States


200,000 to 400,000 people die annually from medical errors.

AT AAPA 2017, Tatsiana Singh, MPAS, PA-C, Indiana State University Sycamore Center for Wellness, explained that despite a lack of reliable nationwide contemporary large-scale studies that could provide reliable statistics on medical errors, there has been some efforts of which healthcare providers are aware.

Tatsiana highlighted the Institute of Medicine’s report in 1999, which estimated there are approximately 98,000 people dying annually from medical errors — this is 30-year-old data. There have been some attempts since then to review studies that were much lower scale (one that was published in the Journal of Patient Safety in 2013), and based on the results, the estimates have shown 200-400,000 people died annually from medical errors.

While these are deaths, there are still many people, 10-20-fold higher or 2-4 million people annually, — who suffer serious consequences as a result of medical errors.

“If you look at these numbers, medical errors would easily qualify for number 3 cause of death in the United States, and these numbers, in my opinion, are gross underestimates, because the majority of the studies that are available at this point are based on the review of medical charts.” Singh also noted that many medical errors do not get documented and never make it into the patient’s charts.

In fact, some studies show that 10-30% of autopsies actually discovered misdiagnoses. When regarding which errors are considered common, Singh noted they do depend on what studies are referred to; however, based on the data from the Joint Commission the leading medical errors are:

· Reportable sentinel event is wrong surgery, wrong patient, and wrong body part. “It really is astounding that in this day and age; we still cannot operate on the right patient and take the correct organ or body part out.”

· Unintentional retention of a foreign body, and that is again during surgery

· Delay in diagnosis; pediatric patients suffer from this greatly.

According to Singh, medication-related errors top the line and ICU patients are at the greatest risk for suffering from a medication-related error — a study that used direct observation of healthcare workers in ICU that found that 1 in 5 medicine dosages suffered from an error. Diagnosis–related errors are also very high, but are just very difficult to detect in research.

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