According to a recent New York Times article “If medical error were considered a disease, a new study has found, it would be the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind only heart disease and cancer.” And medical error may cause over 250,000 deaths a year.
The study, “Medical error-the third leading cause of death in the US” was authored by Dr. Makary et al and published in the British Medical Journal 17 years after the Institute of Medicine published it’s ground-breaking report Too Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System which stated:
“Health care in the United States is not as safe as it should be–and can be. At least 44,000 people, and perhaps as many as 98,000 people, die in hospitals each year as a result of medical errors that could have been prevented, according to estimates from two major studies. Even using the lower estimate, preventable medical errors in hospitals exceed attributable deaths to such feared threats as motor-vehicle wrecks, breast cancer, and AIDS.”
Dr. Makary calls for more transparency in reporting medical errors. As he explained to the Voice of America “As a cancer surgeon, we go through this incredible process to measure our national cancer statistics, patient by patient,” Makary said. “I see a patient with cancer, and I have to document the age and stage of the patient and the subtype of the cancer. And that goes into our National Registry, and each year with millions of dollars of investment we put out our national cancer statistics, all the types and subtypes broken down in this complex report. We should do the same for medical error.”
The key point, as Dr Makary explains in the article, is once the errors become transparent we can move out of the blame game and start discussing the systemic errors that can lead to a safer medical system.
Secrecy suggests individual culpability and distracts us from the systemic failures that lead to unnecessary errors.
The collection of data itself has the wrong focus. As Dr Makary explains, “The medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used.” “Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don’t appear on the list, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves.”
If we are going to confront medical errors head on then we can’t be scared of the facts.