medical malpractice deaths

Six months ago, we wrote a brief post about detecting Medical Malpractice. In that post we used the latest data on deaths caused by the mistakes of medical providers, which suggested that up to 100,000 Americans die every year due to medical mistakes. What we’ve learned since then is that our data was horribly wrong, and the truth is shocking.

Old Data and Terrifying Truths

The 100,000 figure comes from a study published in 1999 called “To Err Is Human.” That study has been relied on by medical and news communities ever since as the gauge of how many deaths and medical mistakes occurred in the United States. However, that study was made using data from 1984. With data now 30 years out-of-date, a man  named John T. James, founder of Patient Safety America, decided to do some digging. Using new data from thousands of doctors what he found was this:

 The true number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients was estimated at more than 400,000 per year. Serious harm seems to be 10- to 20-fold more common than lethal harm. (source)

His study, however, can not be comprehensive since it has no way of measuring things such as a doctor altering his records, a healthcare provider failing to admit to mistakes, and blatant cover ups of negligence. Due to this and other factors, some are saying that the actual death toll is closer to 500,000 Americans every year.

“That is the equivalent of three jumbo jets crashing every day of the year and killing everyone aboard.”

This would make death by medical mistakes the third leading cause of death, only a hair behind cancer and heart disease, and larger than the next four most common causes of death combined. In other words, one sixth of all deaths in America each year are due at least in part to a medical mistake.

To put that into perspective, pharmacy professor and medical author Joe Graedon says “That is the equivalent of three jumbo jets crashing every day of the year and killing everyone aboard.”

A Culture of Denial

You’re probably wondering how the medical community is reacting to this news. One would rightly expect sweeping reforms and massive studies to discover what, if anything, can be done to save more lives and prevent this devastating loss. However, none of those things are happening. The American Hospital Association says it intends to stick with the 1999 estimate and has no plans to do any further studies or research.

Why? Is this new study flawed?

Writing for NPR, ProPublica reached out to prominent medical researchers to examine the methods and results of this study. Those researchers were unanimous in supporting both the study as well as the conclusions. One of these experts was the author of the 1999 study on which the medical community has relied for years.

The real problem is that doctors are trained to reach a quick conclusion and then stick to it.  This culture persists throughout the medical community and it means they’re avoiding the obvious truth: something is horribly wrong with the US healthcare system.

The mistakes often begin in diagnosis, but if a doctor fails to correct the error, a mistaken diagnosis can result in complications, unnecessary surgeries, greater injury, and even death. Medical providers need to remember that they have a duty to provide a certain level of care to their patients, and when they make a mistake, they need to correct it and repair any damage.  Covering up and fighting the truth only exacerbates the problem.


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