A recent report published in The BMJ by Dr. Martin Makary and Michael Daniel, both from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, generated a great deal of national exposure from the mainstream media – and for good reason. We have known for years that fatalities due to preventable mistakes made in U.S. hospitals are enormous. In fact, medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in this country, behind only heart disease and cancer. But the number of medical-error fatalities are seldom reported or collected by local and national health officials.
The report estimates that about 251,000 patients die annually in hospitals due to preventable medical mistakes. However, this is considered to be a low estimate because the authors tracked only errors documented in health records, and included only hospital patients. For many obvious reasons, mostly due to malpractice and reputation concerns, medical errors are grossly underreported.
In addition to the report, the authors published a letter directed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggesting that death certificates have serious limitations by not listing the preventable complications that contributed to the death of patients. The authors, no doubt, agree with our ‘Silently Harmed’ white papers which state “preventable harm in hospitals appears to be an epidemic, and until it is exposed and meaningful reporting methods are embraced and enforced, we have no clear process to measure improvement.”
The United States currently uses a collection system on national health statistics that does not track medical errors. Death by diagnostic and medication errors, communication breakdowns and other system errors are not counted nor included on the death certificate. This is because U.S. health statistics are based on International Classification of Disease (ICD) codes, instituted in 1949.
Bob Anderson, chief of the CDC’s mortality statistics branch, told National Public Radio recently that such reporting would be hard to change “unless we had a really compelling reason to do so.”
This particular comment struck a raw nerve with me. I can think of at least 251K+ ‘compelling’ reasons to change how we track mortality statistics in this country!
When will we finally break away from our adherence to past practices and realize that for medical outcomes to eventually improve, we must accept and embrace new priorities that will address the third-leading cause of death in the United States? For real progress to take hold in healthcare, we must first confront the brutal facts by gathering pertinent measurable statistics to serve as concrete benchmarks for future improvement.
Now that would be compelling!
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