What Kills Americans? Demystifying Patient Deaths from Medical Negligence

 In Medical Malpractice

The Center for Disease Control publishes a table of the causes of death for Americans each year. Most Americans will find the two leading causes to be familiar and unsurprising:

  • Heart disease: 611,105
  • Cancer: 584,881
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 84,767
  • Diabetes: 75,578
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 56,979
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 47,112
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 41,149

But the CDC left something out. Recent studies have indicated that preventable medical errors kill between 98,000 and 440,000 patients a year. If the new, higher numbers are correct (and those who participated in the 1999 study that found 98,000 patient deaths agree that their number is too low), medical negligence is the third leading killer of Americans. To compare, records show that car accidents—where negligence regularly occurs on a daily basis—caused a fraction of Americans’ deaths in 2013. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documented a total of 32,719 deaths in 2013.

To be clear, the CDC relies upon data from death certificates. Medical providers tend to put “complications from [medical condition]” rather than explain that their patients’ death was due to a medical administration error, failure to diagnose, or other medical error. The 130,557 accidents documented by the CDC include the 32,719 deaths from car accidents, as well as falls, drowning, and other calamities. Many of the deaths attributed to heart disease, cancer and stroke may actually be attributable to medical negligence.

The fuzziness in the numbers on iatrogenic (physician-caused) deaths is due to a number of factors: inaccurate medical records; a failure on the part of the physician, nurse, or hospital to properly document the errors; a refusal of the physician or nurse’s peers to properly document the errors; and the inability of the study to truly capture every kind of medical negligence.

As medical records transition from paper to electronic and researchers refine their ability to identify medical negligence within patient records, we should see more accurate numbers emerge. With that, we will hopefully see a new era of responsibility and action on the part of healthcare providers.

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