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Medical Errors Third-Leading Cause of Death

A recent study indicates that hospital patients die of avoidable medical errors far more frequently than was previously thought – as many as 400,000 deaths a year.

The problem of medical errors in the United States has escalated in recent years, up dramatically from 98,000 deaths in 1999. The new study, published in the Journal of Patient Safety, estimates there are 210,000 – 400,000 preventable adverse events (PAEs) in hospitals that lead to deaths each year – which is more than breast cancer, Diabetes, or motor vehicle accidents.

In a 2011 issue of Health Affairs, it was revealed that as many as one in three patients in the U.S. encounter a medical error while in the hospital. The most common are:

  • Medication errors
  • Surgical errors
  • Procedure errors
  • Hospital acquired (nosocomial) infections

Are there more deaths now, or were previous estimates too low?

This question is difficult to answer because there are no set standards for reporting deaths due to PAEs. Currently there are three different methods of detecting preventable adverse events. The two methods most commonly used are voluntary reporting and an automated review of discharge codes. Unfortunately, the third, and most reliable method, the Global Trigger Tool, is seldom implemented – even though it is up to 10 times more accurate than the other two.

More than 1 in 4 Medicare Beneficiaries Experience Some Degree of Harm While Hospitalized

Prompted by the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted a study of adverse events, which revealed:

  • 13.5% of Medicare beneficiaries experienced adverse events
  • 3.5% experienced temporary harm as a result of their medical care
  • 27% of all Medicare beneficiaries experienced instances of care-related harm
  • 44% of adverse or temporary harm events were preventable.

In addition to studying the frequency of adverse events, OIG examined adverse event reporting systems. Hospitals are required to track and analyze patient harm as a requirement of participating in Medicare. Yet, OIG found that hospital staff did not report 86 percent of events to incident reporting systems.

According to The Lancet, a British medical journal, “The USA currently has few policies that compensate patients harmed by medical errors, of whom fewer than 2% file a malpractice suit and a much smaller proportion receive any form of compensation.”

Patients should not be bullied by a system that benefits insurance companies and large corporations. If you have been harmed by a medical mistake, you and your family may be entitled to money damages.

Contact one of our experienced medical malpractice attorneys today for a free case evaluation by filling out our easy online form or calling 1-800-ELK-OHIO.



“Hospital medical errors now the third leading cause of death in the U.S.” by Ilene MacDonald, Fierce Healthcare, September 20, 2013.

“New Health Affairs: Hospital Errors Ten Times More Common Than Thought?” by Chris Fleming, Health Affairs Blog, April 7, 2011.