Study: Medical errors are now the third leading cause of U.S. deaths

New research suggests medical mistakes are a top cause of death, which makes it important for patients to know how to reduce their risk of these errors.

The complexity of the medical diagnostic and treatment process can leave patients in Seattle vulnerable to a number of errors. While a small number of these mistakes may be virtually unavoidable, a substantial number may occur due to oversights, carelessness or outright negligence on the part of medical professionals. Alarmingly, new research suggests that the latter type of error now ranks as one of the top causes of death in the United States.

Tracking error-related deaths

Assessing the exact number of deaths that result from preventable medical errors each year can be difficult due to the way that mortality data is recorded in the U.S. Per National Public Radio, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses a system that only reflects the health condition which initially caused the person to seek treatment. As a result, deaths resulting from medical errors are not often recorded as such.

Still, based on the available data, the study estimated that the toll from needless medical mistakes is significant. The findings, which were published in The BMJ in May 2016, indicate that 250,000 deaths can be attributed to avoidable medical errors each year. This would make these errors the third leading cause of death in the U.S., falling only behind deaths from heart disease and cancer.

Noting the limitations of the available data, the researchers have called for changes to the way that information about patient deaths is recorded. For example, doctors could be required to note on death certificates whether preventable medical errors contributed in some way to the death. This could lead to an improved understanding of the actual toll that medical errors take on patients each year.

Protecting against errors

Given the findings of this study, it is imperative that patients understand how to reduce their risk of experiencing a serious or even deadly medical error. Newsmax recommends that patients take the following protective steps:

  • Reduce the risk of hospital-acquired infections by asking healthcare workers and visitors to wash their hands before engaging in any physical conduct.
  • Inform physicians of all medication and supplement use, along with allergies and adverse reactions, before a drug is prescribed or administered.
  • Prior to surgery, confirm that the doctor and surgeon both agree on the procedure, and ask the surgeon to mark the site that will be operated on.
  • Ask questions about medications to ensure an understanding of proper dosing, potential side effects and contraindications.
  • Bring an advocate who can ask questions and note potentially harmful oversights.

Patients should not hesitate to ask questions to better understand the care that they are receiving or draw attention to potential issues. Additionally, patients who believe a medical professional is making an error should voice their concerns immediately.

Recompense may be available

Unfortunately, these measures may not prevent every error, and statistics suggest that these mistakes will have devastating consequences for thousands of people this year. People who have suffered harm or lost loved ones due to preventable medical mistakes should remember that they might have legal remedies. If a physician's actions fell short of the accepted standard of medical care, victims may be able to seek compensation through a personal injury or wrongful death claim.

Depending on the nature of the mistake, proving that a medical error was preventable or negligent may be challenging. Consequently, victims may benefit from partnering with an attorney for assistance in documenting the error and navigating the claim process.