Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in US

Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in US

Last Reviewed : 12/25/2020
Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in US

Medical errors are not rare, they are an under-recognized cause of hundreds of deaths in the US. There are a number of medical errors that happen in medical facilities across the United States. These errors include communication problems, poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or under use of safety nets, and the list goes on. By and large, 10% of deaths in the US are related to medical errors. It is indeed regrettable that these errors cost Americans their family members, friends, colleagues, community members, etc. You will certainly find reports on deaths by medical errors in the US very disturbing.

Relevant Reports

A study published by a scientist named John James estimates that a minimum of 210,000 deaths occur every year due to medical errors, making it the third-leading cause of death in the USA. Drs. Makary and Daniel of Johns Hopkins in their paper in British Medical Journal (BMJ), calculated that more than 250,000 deaths occur every year. This estimate surpassed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC’s) third-leading cause of death in US-respiratory disease which kills nearly 150,000 people every year. There were not enough standard criteria to recognize hospital errors as the cause of death. In 1949, Makary says, the U.S. adopted an international form that used International Classification of Diseases (ICD) billing codes to tally causes of death.

Markary says, “At that time, it was under-recognized that diagnostic errors, medical mistakes and the absence of safety nets could result in someone’s death, and because of that, medical errors were unintentionally excluded from national health statistics.” On the other hand, Johns Hopkins patient safety experts conducted a study which analyzed medical death rates between a period of 2000-2008 and the results are staggering. In 2013, using hospital admission rates, they extrapolated that out of 35,416,020 hospitalizations, 251,454 deaths occurred due to a medical errors, which translates to 9.5 percent of all deaths each year in the U.S.

In the same year, according to the CDC, 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 U.S. Death rates due to medical errors are more than the rates for respiratory diseases, thus making them third-leading cause. Researchers say, 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.

According to Markary, “Unwarranted variation is endemic in healthcare. Developing consensus protocols that streamline the delivery of medicine and reduce variability can improve quality and lower costs in healthcare. More research on preventing medical errors from occurring is needed to address the problem.”

In another study at Massachusetts General Hospital, 45% of all surgeries from 2013 to 2014 had drug errors or unintended drug side effects. These included incorrect labeling or dose, or medications ordered but not given. Surprisingly, there was a medical error in 1 of every 20 medications, and about 1 of every 2 surgical operations.


While the CDC seems to have a different view on the third-leading cause of deaths in the US, we can establish something here. The findings of Drs. Makary/Daniel and scientist James show that the deaths caused by medical errors by far outnumber those reported by the CDC as the third-leading cause of death in the United States. To conclude, it is safe to say that medical errors are under-recognized and not much has been studied on it. But as per the reports and numbers, it is the third-leading cause of death in USA. For this ugly trend to be arrested, all hands (relevant government agencies, medical practitioners and concerned individuals) must be on deck.


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