Medical Errors Cause Thousands of Deaths

After heart disease and cancer, preventable medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States. The Journal of Patient Safety recently published a study that estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 people die annually in the United States from preventable medical errors in hospitals. This number does not include those who died outside of hospitals because of medical errors.

As a result of the improvements in vehicle safety - air bags, improved seat belts, improved crash- worthiness of vehicles, improved highway design - vehicle collision deaths have declined dramatically. In 1980, 50,000 died from motor vehicle collision and in 2011 this number was 36,000. Twice as many people died from hospital infections as by automobile collisions. The numbers are frightening. In 2011 some 700,000 people got an infection associated with health care and 10 percent of those people died. According to an article in a leading international health care safety journal, one in 80 people in the United States is misdiagnosed as an outpatient annually, and 80,000 die as a result of diagnostic errors. This number is in addition to the large number of errors that occur in hospitals.

Medical experts are pushing for reforms. One expert demanded that Medicare begin publishing hospital-specific infection rates and medical outcomes such as surgical deaths and complications. That information is readily available with hospital coding. The Senate Committee on Primary Health and Aging, chaired by Bernie Sanders of Vermont, convened in July 2014 to consider this issue. The cost in lives is staggering and the financial cost is overwhelming. Preventable medical errors not only impact the victims of such errors, but the cost of our own health care increases because of these costs. According to the Journal of Health Care Finance, the indirect costs of all medical errors is nearly $1 trillion each year.

The consensus of those testifying before the Senate Committee on Primary Health and Aging is that the fundamental problem is that health care organizations don't track the safety of their care. If we want to improve patient safety, we must improve accountability of the health care providers.

Those advocating for "tort reform" state that the high cost of malpractice lawsuits is the primary cause of increased health care costs, when it is apparent that the true leading cause is the malpractice itself.