According to a 2016 Johns Hopkins study, medical malpractice deaths are the third leading cause of death in the United States.
The study’s authors define medical errors as those caused by inadequately skilled practitioners, errors in judgment, inadequate care, a defective system, or an adverse outcome that could have been prevented. This includes computers breaking down, mistakes with the type of dosage of medications that are administered, and surgical complications that are not diagnosed. According to the Johns Hopkins study, there are between 250,000 and 400,000 medical malpractice deaths per year.
The Johns Hopkins study examined the rate of death hospital negligence over an eight-year period. Researchers discovered that, out of 34,416,020 people admitted to the hospital, there were 251,454 deaths due to medical errors. This death rate ranks medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer, which each kill approximately 600,000 people per year. The fourth leading cause of death is respiratory disease, which kills about 150,000 people per year.
Of course, doctors, hospitals, and other medical providers don’t want you to know this, and physicians, funeral directors, coroners, and medical examiners rarely note “medical error” as the cause of death on a death certificate. Instead, they rely on the underlying cause of the hospital visit which does not account for death by hospital negligence.
CDC Reporting System Does Not Account for Deaths Due to Medical Errors
The problem with the reporting of medical malpractice deaths is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses a system that only measures deaths caused by disease, morbid conditions, and injuries. The CDC recording system tracks the underlying cause of death and does not account for factors that occur once a patient has sought medical treatment. Nothing in the CDC collection system accounts for death by hospital negligence, doctor error deaths, or systemic failures. While this reporting system is consistent with international guidelines, it fails to paint an accurate portrait of causes of death in U.S. hospitals.
According to the report’s author, it is precisely this system that is to blame for the failure to report the number of deaths due to medical errors. The International Classification of Disease coding system was designed to maximize physician billing efficiency. It was never intended to be used to collect national health data statistics. The coding system was implemented in the United States in 1949 and uses billing codes to tally death statistics. But in 1949, concern over medical errors was low and they were excluded from national healthcare statistics as a cause of death.
In reality, no one knows the exact number of deaths caused by medical errors every year. The CDC coding system does not include things like breakdowns in communication, diagnostic errors, and poor judgment. Yet each of these can, and unfortunately do, cost lives. But armed with this information, doctors and hospitals systems nationwide should assess their policies and procedures to address systemic problems and reduce the number of deaths caused by medical errors.
How to Protect Yourself Against Medical Errors
As a consumer of healthcare services, there are steps you can take to protect yourself against medical errors.
1. Ask Questions
Ask questions to get as much information as you can about the benefits of a suggested medical procedure or prescription medication, possible side effects or complications, and the disadvantages of what your medical provider is suggesting. Conduct your own research, and ask follow up questions.
2. Get a Second Opinion
After a medical provider has suggested a particular course of treatment, you are always free to seek a second opinion. This is particularly true if you have lingering uncertainties, or if your provider is suggesting a procedure that is outside of the norm. Rather than discouraging a patient from seeking more information, a good doctor will encourage you to seek a second opinion and welcome confirmation of his diagnosis and proposed treatment.
3. Bring an Advocate
Bring someone with you to a doctor’s appointment. It can be hard to process all of the information alone, especially if you are under the influence of medication or are recovering from an illness. Ask a friend or family member to accompany you. They can help you understand the proposed procedure, offer suggestions, and ask questions that you may not have thought of.
4. Discuss Your Medical History with Every Medical Provider
Tell your medical provider about any allergies and health conditions you have, as well as any medications you are taking.
5. Don’t Assume Everyone Has Access to Your Medical Records
Don’t assume that your medical provider has access to all of your healthcare information. Instead, be prepared to review your medical history with each new medical provider you see. In the age of cloud-based storage, it’s easy to assume that all of your medical providers will have easy access to your medical records, but this is not always the case.
What to Do If Someone You Love Was Killed Due to Medical Negligence
If you suspect someone you love was killed because of hospital negligence or medical errors, it is important to act quickly. Short timelines often apply in medical malpractice cases. You should contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer as soon as possible.
A medical malpractice attorney can request the relevant medical records and review them to determine the true cause of death and hold the negligent actors responsible. Of course, no amount of money will ever make up for the loss of a loved one. But receiving fair compensation can help pay for:
Tom Robenalt started his litigation career representing doctors and hospitals at a large firm in Cleveland. For the past 25 years, he has used that experience to help the families of people who have been injured or killed by negligent health care providers.
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