Medical errors are the elephant in the room

Jun 28, 2016

Did you know that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States? Or that an estimated 400,000 hospitalized patients each year experience some type of preventable harm?

Medical errors can include lapses in judgment, skill or coordination of care, mistaken diagnoses, system failures that lead to patient deaths or the failure to rescue dying patients, and preventable complications of care. Regardless of the underlying cause of the error, there can be severe consequences to all parties involved. Although previous studies have identified medical errors as an issue, little has been done on a system wide basis to document and prevent them.

Research uncovers flawed methodology for reporting deaths
In May 2016, medical researchers from Johns Hopkins University published research that uncovered significant inaccuracies in medical error statistics and flawed methodology for reporting deaths. Led by surgeon Dr. Martin Makary and co-author Dr. Michael Daniel, the study reported that the number of deaths due to medical errors has long been underestimated. They attributed this to methodology used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to calculate deaths. And an additional factor is deaths that occur in outpatient clinics, nursing homes, and other non-hospital settings where patients seek complex care are excluded from published mortality statistics. Based on 2000 to 2008 data used in this study, they concluded that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer.

“Throughout the world, medical error leading to patient death is an under-recognized epidemic.”

CDC methodology for estimating deaths

The CDC doesn’t require that medical errors be reported in the data collected for death certificates. They publish mortality statistics that only count the "underlying cause of death," defined as the condition that led a person to seek treatment. As a result, even when a medical error is listed on a death certificate, it isn’t included in published totals.

Dr. Makary and Dr. Daniel are urging the CDC to make the change, to help make patient safety a nationwide priority.

What we know about medical errors and misidentification

  • 20% of CIO’s admit that patient identification errors have led to adverse medical events
  • Patient identification errors were one of the top 10 patient safety concerns for healthcare organizations in 2016, according to The Emergency Care Research Institute
  • 850 patients in the U.S. receive blood meant for someone else every year, 20 of them die as a result (Clinical Journal of Nursing)
  • 100% of infants discharged to the wrong family resulted from misidentification (Joint Commission)
  • 29% of medication errors result from misidentification (Patient Safety Authority)
  • 68% of all laboratory errors result from misidentification (VA Study)

Steps you can take to prevent medical errors and patient misidentification
Want to learn how your organizations can make an immediate impact in decreasing patient misidentification and improving overall patient safety?

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