Medical errors rank as 3rd leading cause of death — 5 insights into reporting issues

A BMJ study found medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, following heart disease and cancer.

Here are five key points:

1. Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers argue U.S. death certificates have no effective avenue for acknowledging a medical error.

2. Currently, death certificates in the United States use ICD codes to identify the cause of death. However, human and system factors are not identified with an ICD code, and thus are not captured.

3. The researchers urge the healthcare system to implement better reporting to understand the depth of the problem. They also suggest death certificates have an extra field asking whether a preventable complication from a patient's medical care played a contributing factor in their death.

4. Using data derived from U.S. hospitals in 2013, the study found medical errors cause nearly 251,454 deaths each year.

5. Researchers identify three strategies to reduce death from medical errors:

  • Make errors more visible
  • Have readily accessible treatments available for patients
  • Follow principles and practices that take human limitations into account

"Sound scientific methods, beginning with an assessment of the problem, are critical to approaching any health threat to patients," researchers concluded. "The problem of medical errors should not be exempt from this scientific approach."

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