Medical Error -Overestimated as Cause of Death

A recent NY Times article provides some context to previous studies claiming that medical error could cause 100,000-250,000 deaths per year: Aaron Carroll Death by Medical Error

Here’s some excerpts:

When I started out as a doctor in 1999, the Institute of Medicine published a blockbuster report that declared that up to 98,000 people were dying in United States hospitals each year as a result of preventable medical errors. Just a few months ago, a study in the BMJ declared that number has now risen to more than 250,000, making preventable medical errors in hospitals the third-largest cause of death in the country in 2013…

There are about 2.5 million deaths each year in the United States, about 700,000 of which are hospitalized patients. This means that medical errors — in hospitals — would have to account for up to 10 percent of all deaths, or up to more than a third of hospitalized patients. That’s hard to fathom….

It’s somewhat sensationalistic to keep coming up with increasing numbers. I’m not sure it’s doing much good. After the publication of the initial report, defenders of the 98,000 number argued that even if the numbers were wrong, bringing attention to this problem would be good in itself.

Unfortunately, research doesn’t necessarily back that up. A 2010 study in The New England Journal of Medicine followed 10 North Carolina hospitals in the 10 years after the Institute of Medicine report. They found that the overall rate of harms, and the rate of preventable harms, did not significantly improve over that period.

My take: The article, in full, makes some compelling arguments that medical errors are overly-attributed as causes of death. At the same time, the article does not dismiss the importance of medical errors.  Many of the harms from medical errors do not result in death.

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