Preventable medical errors a leading cause of death in America

Media attention has been widespread about many of the leading causes of death in America, particularly heart disease, cancer and car accidents. Because of that attention, most people understand how important it is to take precautions like eating a healthier diet, not smoking and not driving while distracted (or under the influence). Beyond those, there is little attention given to other leading causes of death, so the average American likely has no clue what they are.

One "silent" killer that causes an estimated 210,000 to 400,000 deaths annually has likely never been considered by most: preventable medical errors.

The history behind an epidemic

A report that the Journal of Patient Safety recently released is the first comprehensive medical data research project since the Institute of Medicine's landmark "To Err is Human" study back 1999 and a 2010 study performed by Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services that looked only at Medicare patients. It comes to the shocking conclusion that medical errors may in fact be the number three cause of death in our country (behind only heart disease and cancer).

The 1999 study estimated that about 98,000 deaths each year were caused by some form of medical negligence, malpractice or error (including surgical errors, misdiagnosis, failure to diagnose, hospital errors and others). The 2010 study went much further, saying that an average of 180,000 patients on Medicare die annually due to neglect, inadequacy, inattention or otherwise flawed care from a hospital, clinic, physician or other medical facility.

The Journal of Patient Safety study is one of the most inclusive ones to date, involving the examination of medical records, reported medical errors, death certificates and other clinical data. After researchers examined multiple sources and myriad patient records, they approximated a fatality rate congruent to the nation's entire patient population, finding that between 210,000 and 400,000 patients each year lose their lives because of medical errors that, with due care, safety procedures and attention, could have been prevented.

What does this mean for patients?

Hopefully, the controversial results of this study will encourage lively debate in the medical community and will lead to increased awareness of the possibility of medical mistakes. This could then result in new safety procedures, hiring practices, cleanliness protocols or other process changes that will make all medical facilities safer for patients. Only time will tell its true impact, though.

In the meantime, if you or a loved one has been the victim of a medical mistake, physician error, misdiagnosis or other negligence, there is help out there. Seek the assistance of an experienced medical malpractice attorney in your area to learn more about your legal rights and options.