News: Medical Errors

Researchers: Medical errors now third leading cause of death in United States By Ariana Eunjung Cha May 3 at 6:30 PM Nightmare stories of nurses giving potent drugs meant for one patient to another and surgeons removing the wrong body parts have dominated recent headlines about medical care. Lest you assume those cases are the exceptions, a new study by patient safety researchers provides some context. Their analysis, published in the BMJ on Tuesday, shows that “medical errors” in hospitals and other health care facilities are incredibly common and may now be the third leading cause of death in the United States ­­ claiming 251,000 lives every year, more than respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the research, said in an interview that the category includes everything from bad doctors to more systemic issues such as communication breakdowns when patients are handed off from one department to another.

Research has confirmed that 440,000 people die every year because of preventable medical errors. That is equivalent to almost the entire population of Atlanta, Georgia, dying from a medical error each year. Preventable medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States and cost our country tens of billions of dollars a year.

Despite this serious epidemic, corporate front groups are working hard in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures throughout the country to limit accountability and access to the civil justice system when patients are harmed or killed by medical negligence.

The civil justice system gives families of patients who have died or have been injured by medical negligence an avenue to seek accountability. It also provides an incentive to health care providers to improve patient care. Removing that accountability and incentive leaves people at risk for more injuries from negligent care and does nothing but help the insurance industry’s bottom line.

The Facts:

  • 440,000 patients die every year from preventable medical errors. [Journal of Patient Safety]
  • Preventable medical errors cost our country tens of billions of dollars a year. [Institute of Medicine]
  • One in three patients who are admitted to the hospital will experience a medical error. [Health Affairs]
  • Studies of wrong site, wrong surgery, wrong patient procedures show that “never events” are happening at an alarming rate of up to 40 times per week in U.S. hospitals. [Archives of Surgery]
  • Medical negligence lawsuits amount to just one-half of one percent of all health care costs. [Congressional Budget Office]
  • Medical negligence cases represent well under 2 percent of all civil cases. [National Center for State Courts]
  • Researchers at Harvard University found that 97 percent of cases were meritorious, concluding, “Portraits of a malpractice system that is stricken with frivolous litigation are overblown.” [New England Journal of Medicine]

Federal Legislation:

In the 112th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Help Efficient, Accessible, Low Cost, Timely, Health Care (HEALTH) Act of 2011” (H.R. 5) on March 22, 2012. This bill aims to take away the legal rights of injured patients, removing any incentives to improve patient safety and leaving people at risk for more injuries from negligent care. This bill would impose one-size-fits-all caps on damages, not just when injured by medical negligence, but also defective drugs, medical devices, or abuse suffered in nursing homes.

This bill protects negligent health providers and takes away the rights of injured patients. Opposition to H.R. 5 has ranged from patient safety groups to conservative legal scholars and elected officials.