What Kills Americans? Heart Disease, Cancer and Medical Errors

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medical error doctor disappointedWe’ve all seen the billboards and know the figures: Smoking kills! Drinking and driving kills! While these statements are true, a different threat has been creeping up through the ranks of causes of death: medical errors. Stories are all over the internet of nurses giving wrong drugs to patients or surgeons lopping off the wrong leg. For the longest time, these were thought to be rare exceptions, caused by tired or inexperienced medical professionals.

But that school of thought is now moot.

In a recent study from the British Medical Journal, it was revealed that medical errors are now the third-leading cause of death in the United States. According to the report, medical errors take almost as many lives annually as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), suicide, firearms and car accidents combined.

Struggling for Statistics

The study author, Dr. Martin Makary, is the surgical director of the Johns Hopkins Multidisciplinary Pancreas Clinic and a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine. He examined and analyzed death rate records over eight years. However, he ran into some problems. Death due to medical error is not often printed on death certificates and isn’t found in billing codes. In fact, it’s not tracked in any sort of standardized way. So, Makary had to get creative.

He and his team looked at four different studies conducted from 2000 to 2008. They analyzed the medical death rate in these studies, then looked at 2013 figures. From these statistics, they examined about 35,500,000 hospitalizations. From there, they found that more than 250,000 deaths resulted from medical errors — about one death every two minutes. That’s 9.5 percent of all annual deaths in the U.S., coming in behind heart disease and cancer.

cause of death americans chart

Source: BMJ. All figures are approximate.

To make matters more difficult, the Centers for Disease Control do not require reporting medical errors in death statistics it gathers through billing codes. So while different hospitals may release their own numbers on the matter, it has historically been difficult to understand what’s happening on the national stage. And when you think about it, that’s strange. For instance, if you were to look up your favorite fast food chain, you could find the most common health code violations. From there, mistakes are analyzed and hopefully not made again. But no such standardization is in place for the facilities dedicated to helping you live well.

Common Medical Errors

While there are any number of things that can go wrong at the hospital, there are a few common mistakes that seem to pop up more often than others. While these issues are often rectified quickly and no long-term damage happens, they unfortunately do lead to death in some cases.

Medication Errors

Despite what some medical shows may portray, prescribing and giving medication at the hospital is an exact science. There are many factors to consider, such as allergies, pre-existing conditions and other medications already being taken. Giving someone the wrong medicine, or the wrong amount, can be disastrous, as 1.5 million patients learn annually.

Blood Transfusion Problems

When a patient has sustained an open wound and has lost a large amount of blood, the most common procedure is to replace the red blood cells through transfusion. However, receiving too much blood can greatly increase the risk for infection — sometimes leading to death. In fact, about 60 percent of all transfusion procedures globally are simply unnecessary.

Improper Treatment for Premature Babies

“Premies” are incredibly fragile when they are born and require special treatment. One such treatment includes giving oxygen. However, oxygen can be very dangerous if it’s given in the wrong amount. Too little can lead to suffocation, while too much can lead to blindness and other complications.

Infections from Your Doctor

Infections borne from a hospital stay affect 1 in 25 patients. The most common cause comes from not following a lesson we all learned in kindergarten: hand-washing. Your doctor and nurses should be washing or sanitizing their hands in between patients. While most do, they often reach for their cell phones or other devices afterward, which are a breeding ground for germs.

Infections from IVs

Most people who have been to the hospital for serious issues are familiar with central lines. These tubes are connected to needles, which are then inserted into the artery in your arm to deliver medicine or other fluids. Unfortunately, an unsanitary needle can allow germs to follow your bloodstream straight to your heart, bladder or other organs.

Preventing Medical Errors

young doctor and nurse arguingWhen it comes down to it, most hospitals are understaffed. Different states have different laws dictating the nurse-to-patio ratio required at hospitals, but oftentimes, these mandates go unheeded due to budgetary restraints. And when hospitals are understaffed, patients are at risk.The more patients a nurse is looking after, the more likely they are to suffer — or even die. If hospitals want to see their medical error-related mortality rates drop, having enough doctors and nurses on the floor at all times is key.

However, some errors can be prevented by patients. Even when doctor-/nurse-to-patient ratios are sound, medical professionals have a lot to deal with. So if you are being given medication, ask about it. Ask why you need it, and how much you should take. At the very least, it will cause the nurse to double-check the chart, which could fix errors before they happen.

If you or a loved one does get hurt due to medical error, it’s important to hold the hospital accountable. Otherwise, they could make the same mistakes over and over with little repercussion. Forcing the hospital to pay for their errors may lead to them re-evaluating their procedures so future patients don’t suffer the same injuries you did.

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