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.
"It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care," Makary said.
The issue of patient safety has been a hot topic in recent years, but it wasn't always that way. In 1999, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report calling preventable medical errors an "epidemic" shocked the medical establishment and led to significant debate about what could be done.
The IOM, based on one study, estimated deaths because of medical errors as high as 98,000 a year. Makary's research involves a more comprehensive analysis of four large studies, including ones by the Health and Human Services Department's Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality that took place between 2000 to 2008. His calculation of 251,000 deaths equates to nearly 700 deaths a day -- about 9.5 percent of all deaths annually in the United States.