12 November 2004

Medical Errors -- The leading cause of preventable death in America

Imagine opening your newspaper to read "Two airliners crash——all aboard lost". Now imagine reading that same headline nearly every day of the year! That’s how many Americans die every year from preventable accidents and mistakes in U.S. hospitals.

And that only accounts for the deaths due to avoidable mishaps in hospitals. Many tens of thousands more are injured or maimed. And beyond that, many thousands are hurt or killed in non-hospital settings such as clinics and nursing homes. In addition to suffering and death, these errors cost us tens of billions of dollars in excess health care expense each year.

We have all heard heartbreaking news stories of patients who have had the wrong leg or kidney removed. These were avoidable medical errors. (Medicine even has a name for this problem: "wrong-side surgery".) But each day there are thousands of medical errors that cause injury or death to patients nation wide——patients who put their trust in health workers who tolerate a rate of errors that would be unacceptable in any other industry.

More people probably die each year from these medical errors than from any other cause except heart disease, stroke, all cancers taken together, and maybe chronic lower respiratory diseases like emphysema. Breast cancer and prostate cancer together don't kill as many. AIDs, car crashes or suicide? Way fewer.

Extensive studies have shown that several percent of patients admitted to hospitals suffer preventable injuries due to errors in medical management (2% of admissions in a New York study using 1984 data, and the same in another in Utah and Colorado using 1992 data). Of course in hospitals a lot of people die anyway, so these avoidable incidents are easily covered up or ignored. Imagine if 2% of the customers of all restaurants became sick or died because of errors by the restaurant employees.

Other industries go to great lengths to prevent defects and errors, and they succeed. (They use statistics to identify potential problems and fix them—they do the math!) We need to demand the same from medicine.

(The Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies published a detailed report in 2000.)

(Department of Health and Human Services medical errors site.)

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