The Real Cost of Medical Mistakes in America

A study recently found that over 250,000 Americans die from medical mistakes every year, making it the third-leading cause of death. Our medical malpractice lawyers have been representing victims of medical errors for 30 years. Here, we shed some light on this hotly debated issue and share what we’ve learned over the last three decades.

Why the Hot Debate?

Any number of factors can cause medical errors, from diagnostic oversights to inadequate skills. Professor Martin Makary of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine wrote the explosive paper calling out medical errors as the third-leading cause of death. He explains that medical error is not an option on death certificates, so when a patient dies from any type of medical mistake, their death certificates state “respiratory failure,” or “cardiac arrest,” rather than the actual cause of that emergency.

Death certificates are the basis for our national health statistics. When you hear or read that the number one cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, it’s because heart disease is the most common box checked on death certificates.

This means that the number of patients dying from medical errors is not even recorded. The only places medical mistakes are recognized are in court, in nurses’ stations, and in doctors’ lounges. We have no system for collecting and reporting these statistics.

Currently, medical literature most often cites a paper from 1999 when discussing patient quality and safety. This paper, from the Institute of Medicine, does not have any original research. It merely cites two studies – one from 1984 – that were done in nursing homes.

In hospitals throughout the country, doctors are holding patient safety meetings that cite a flawed paper from over 15 years ago.

Heart Disease, Cancer, and Medical Errors

Makary analyzed the best science in the field of patient safety and quality to get an updated number on the true rate of medical mistakes. He found that more than 250,000 people die every year in the U.S. from these errors. This estimate uses the most conservative numbers, meaning the actual number is likely much higher.

According to the CDC, the three leading causes of death in the U.S. are

  1. Heart disease (614,348)

  2. Cancer (591,699)

  3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases (147,101)

As you can see, the current third-leading cause of death is not even close to 250,000. Consider how much money, time and resources we put into cancer and heart disease research, prevention, awareness and care. It’s amazing that we have not even recognized medical mistakes as an epidemic and a leading cause of death among us.

What Drives Medical Mistakes

Let us start by saying this is not a problem aimed solely at doctors, nurses, and clinicians. No one believes our doctors are bad, unprofessional, or negligent. They are heroes. The problem is our medical system, its lack of transparency, and the unfair influence of Big Pharma and medical device companies.

We’ve all heard of crazy doctors who injure and kill patients from Brazilian butt lifts or unnecessary heart surgery. What’s lesser known is how smart, normal, well-trained doctors are incentivized to prescribe certain drugs and implant certain devices even if it’s not in the patient’s best interest. It’s not known because it’s hidden from the public.

Let’s say you go to your doctor for birth control. There are many different options, and you decide you want an IUD. If your doctor has any financial relationship with Bayer, he or she will be much more incentivized to prescribe Mirena over another, much safer and equally effective IUD called Paraguard.

Awkward incentives like this in medicine are only increasing. This creates a complex medical system that is unclear, unaffordable, and deadly.

As stated earlier, wide ranges of factors influence the explosion of medical errors. Communication breakdowns, misdiagnoses, and fear among clinicians are big drivers. So is our reluctance to talk openly and honestly about the issue.

We’ve written before about the importance of trust between doctors and patients, especially after a mistake is made. There’s no standardized system for how to behave after a clinician makes a mistake. Each hospital, team, and office has its own approach. We need to establish a standardized system for dealing with it.

Think about it like this: when a plane crashes, there is widespread reporting and an official investigation. When the investigation results are published, all the pilots and airline companies in the world learn what went wrong and why, learning something from the crash.

In healthcare, catastrophic mistakes are made over and over again and many are never investigated, spoken about, or learned from.

What Can We Do?

We need to recognize, appreciate, and fund the efforts to improve patient quality and safety. We need to make standardized reporting of medical mistakes a national norm. We need public awareness campaigns, and we need to research the problem.

In order to do this, we need to measure how, when and why mistakes occur. We aren’t doing this now. It could be as simple as asking patients and clinicians what they believe went wrong, and protecting them when they answer honestly.

We need to add an option for “medical error” on death certificates so we can measure the problem on a national, state, and local level.

Our team of medical malpractice lawyers represent injured patients nationwide. We fight for patients’ rights and the rights of their families. If you have any questions about medical malpractice, negligence, mistakes or errors, contact us for a free case review. We never charge our clients out-of-pocket, and we only get paid if we win you a settlement or verdict.

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