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Study: Medical Malpractice the Third-Leading Cause of Death

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Medical errors are now the third-leading cause of death, outpaced only by cancer and heart disease, according to a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Medical malpractice now claims at least 251,000 lives annually, making it more deadly than Alzheimer's, strokes, infectious diseases, and accidents.

And that’s just the numbers for malpractice leading to deaths. The numbers go up substantially when you also factor in individuals who were grossly injured from medical malpractice.

Less deadly diseases tend to garner more attention than medical errors in part because of inconsistent reporting. While most people know someone who has died of cancer, loved ones may not be aware when medical error plays a role in a loved one's death—particularly when that person was already sick, the study's authors argue.

The new study corrects previous CDC figures, which suggested that about 150,000 people die each year due to medical errors.

How Medical Errors Became the Third-Leading Cause of Death

Although the new study has garnered explosive headlines and extensive media coverage, medical errors have been a leading cause of death for years. In 2013, a report from the Leapfrog Group, which advocates for safer hospitals and provides hospital safety grades, found that 440,000 people died from medical errors each year between 2008-2011.

For the latest study, researchers conducted a comprehensive analysis of four other studies, including research from the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Overall, about 700 people are dying each day due to preventable medical errors, accounting for nearly 10% of all deaths.

Often, people who die at the hands of inept medical providers are already sick, so their deaths are attributed to the underlying disease. A cancer patient who dies from an infection may be the victim of medical errors that allowed her to get sick, but friends and family may mistakenly believe that cancer was the culprit.

No single medical type of medical error explains all of the deaths in the study. Some of the most common errors in this and other studies include:

  • Delays or errors in diagnosis, such as when a doctor diagnoses a patient with a less serious condition, or fails to recognize signs of a life-threatening condition.
  • Inappropriate use of diagnostic tests, and failure to act on those tests' results.
  • Medical errors during operations and other procedures, such as nicking an artery or using a drug to which a patient is allergic.
  • Incorrectly administering a treatment, such as administering the wrong treatment or the applying the right treatment at the wrong dose.
  • Failure to provide preventative care, such as failing to advise a cardiovascular patient to lose weigh tor exercise.
  • Inadequate follow-up treatment.
  • Inadequate ongoing monitoring.
  • Providing care that is not indicated for the condition, such as routinely giving anti-psychotic medications to patients not experiencing psychosis.

Are Medical Errors Underreported?

The latest study hints at a problem that may actually be increasing the rate of medical errors: underreporting. A number of factors contribute to the phenomenon, but chief among them is the way death certificates are designed. Most coroner's offices do not have a separate box indicating that medical error was either the primary or contributory cause of death, making it impossible to track statistics across time.

Additionally, many hospitals are reluctant to report medical errors, particularly when another factor could be at play. For example, when a woman with Alzheimer's disease suddenly dies, the hospital may conduct an internal investigation at the behest of the family. If the investigation finds that the woman also had cardiovascular disease, the hospital might not report this fact if Alzheimer's is a probable cause of death.

In some cases, hospitals treat information about medical errors as proprietary, conducting internal investigations and only releasing the results after the hospital has cleared itself. This means that patients and the general public may not know about cases in which medical error might have been a factor—only those in which the hospital, which has much to gain from underplaying medical errors, agrees that medical error was a factor.

Other industries routinely allow outside agencies to investigate their practices, but doctors and the hospitals that employ them tend to be defensive. Although this can protect a provider from a lawsuit, it increases the rate of patient deaths. If a hospital does not know it has a problem, after all, it has little hope of remedying the issue.

Protect Yourself From Medical Errors

Medical errors are never the fault of the victim, so believing that you are invulnerable to medical errors is simply naïve. Nevertheless, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your odds of becoming a victim. Those include:

  • Seeking a second opinion about any life-threatening diagnosis. If you have symptoms that your doctor cannot diagnose, this also warrants a second opinion. 
  • Double-checking the dosage on all medications. 
  • Reading online patient reviews. 
  • Asking your doctor lots of questions. Research consistently shows that informed patients who are skeptical of their doctors get better results.
  • Assessing the risks and benefits of each and every medical procedure you undergo. 
  • Carefully reading informed consent forms. 
  • Telling all of your providers about all of your medications. 
  • Working with doctors who specialize in your condition. Spinal cord injury survivors consistently get better results when they seek care at one of 14 Model Systems. 
  • Reporting all of your symptoms to your doctor. 
  • Logging how your symptoms change over time, particularly in response to medications and lifestyle changes. 

What to Do if You Are a Victim

If you think you have been a victim of medical malpractice, don't trust the assurances of your doctor. Likewise, hospital investigations can be biased, and may not take into account all relevant information. If someone you love dies in medical care, or if you became sick after a medical procedure, you deserve outside assistance. At the very least, consider seeking a second opinion from a doctor who is not connected to the hospital.

If you have incurred significant expenses, or suffered a major loss, you may have grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit. The statute of limitations begins tolling at the moment of the injury, so you need to act quickly. Don't rely on your own research, or on empty assurances from non-lawyers. Only a medical malpractice attorney can tell you if you have a case.

It's not greedy to sue. If you've been injured, you deserve compensation. And while no amount of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one, it can encourage the doctor to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

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Zawn Villines

Written by Zawn Villines

Zawn Villines is a writer specializing in health and legal journalism. Raised by a lawyer and lobbyist who advocated for spinal cord injury survivors, she is a lifelong advocate for spinal injury victims and their loved ones. You can connect with Zawn on Google+ below.

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