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Medical Errors May be the Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

ProPublica, the public-interest investigative journalism nonprofit, recently reported on an alarming new report by a NASA toxicologist who runs an independent advocacy group Patient Safety America. The report, published in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety, concluded that the number of people who die in U.S. hospitals due to preventable medical errors has been substantially underestimated.

Basing his conclusions on data from four recent studies on preventable patient harm, referred to in the medical community as “adverse events.” Using a text-searching tool developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, the researcher was able to search the medical records used in those studies and flag them when words such as “infection,” “injury” or “error” appeared. A doctor then reviewed the flagged records to evaluate the extent of any harm to patients.

The result was a shocking new estimate of how common medical malpractice death actually may be — some 210,000 people every year, at the low end, may suffer preventable harm at American hospitals that contributes to their deaths. If even the lower number is accurate, medical errors could be the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

After examining the medical records of more than 4,200 patients who had been hospitalized between 2002 and 2008, the newest study also found preventable adverse events in 21 percent of the cases — and lethal medical errors in as many as 1.4 percent.

In its list of the leading causes of death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t specify whether medical malpractice was a factor. However, in its preliminary list for 2011, accidents, nephrosis and related issues, pneumonia/influenza and septicemia are all among the top 15, any of which could be due to medical error.

This new, higher estimate of medical malpractice deaths is not uncontroversial. A spokesperson for the American Hospital Association told ProPublica that it finds the number issued by the Institute of Medicine in 1999 — around 98,000 annual medical malpractice deaths — more credible. That position discounts not only this study, but a 2010 study by the federal Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Inspector General, which estimated deaths from poor hospital care at 180,000 among Medicare patients alone.

According to ProPublica, no one has ever counted the actual number of Americans suffer preventable harm or wrongful death from medical malpractice. The trend seems to be clear, however: more than we thought.

Source: NPR’s Shots blog, “How Many Die From Medical Mistakes In U.S. Hospitals?” Marshall Allen, ProPublica, Sept. 20, 2013