What Is Killing Us These Days?

OK, all you smartypants, you get style points if you said heart disease or cancer. You get bonus points if you have been reading my articles and you guessed opioids! If you guessed preventable medical errors, you are my new BFF and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee if you’d like to come to my office to collect your reward.

All kidding aside, this is no laughing matter. The best estimates we have rank preventable medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the U.S., just behind cancer and heart disease. Y’all being lawyers and all aren’t going to take my word for it, so let’s explore further.


Every death certificate in the United States has certain causes of death, which are coded according to the International Classification of Disease (ICD). These codes can be searched to derive statistics. However, there is no code for “medical error.” In addition, even though the science of medical errors has evolved with analysis to determine root causes and ways to prevent medical errors, there are no classifications for particular safety issues such as diagnostic error, hospital acquired infection, or other hospital acquired conditions, surgical misadventures, medication mix ups, etc.

Two renowned physicians, Dr. Martin Makary and Dr. Michael Daniel, reviewed four studies analyzing medical death rates over eight years to find out if these statistics were accurate. The doctors compared the studies to hospital admission rates and found that more than 250 thousand deaths resulted from medical error. That is 9.5% of the patients included in the studies.

The doctors also referenced the groundbreaking 1999 Institute of Medicine study, “To Err is Human,” which reported the number of deaths each year due to medical errors as roughly a quarter million people annually. Still, Drs. Makary and Daniel concluded that this study underestimated the true incidence of deaths because the study relied only on errors that were actually documented in the patient’s medical chart and limited their study to in-patient deaths only.


As you might imagine, statistics drive research and the need for funding for said research. Drs. Makary and Daniel found their results even more concerning because the inaccuracy in coding the cause of death allows all of the funding and research to concentrate on cancer and heart disease, completely skipping over medical errors.

Patient safety groups have noticed the problem and the National Patient Safety Foundation has publicly refuted the CDC’s claim that the issue is not with the coding system. The CDC feels the medical errors are captured by the system, but the NPSF, along with our Dr. Makary, argue that the system was designed for medical billing so it only captures diseases and conditions as opposed to cause of death due to preventable medical error.

Why does all this matter, you might ask? Well, you see it involves the “F” word, FUNDING. Imagine if preventable medical errors had the same level of funding as #1 and #2, the American Heart Association, The American Cancer Association, The Susan G. Komen Foundation, etc. My guess is that changes would occur and far fewer patients would die from preventable medical errors.

Until then, the Plaintiff’s medical malpractice bar will continue fighting each case to try and force change. Kay Van Wey

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