Reader Poll: Is Medical Error the Third Leading Cause of Death?

June 09, 2016

According to a new study, 9.5% of hospitalized patients die annually from medical error, making it the third leading cause of death in the United States.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published a landmark report on error in healthcare, concluding that medical care was responsible for 44,000 - 98,000 US deaths annually. The current study looked at other studies since the 1999 IOM report, extrapolating annual inpatient death rates from those reports to the total number of US hospital admissions in 2013. The findings were published in the British Medical Journal.

The authors calculated that 251,454 inpatients (9.5%) die annually as a result of medical error. "If medical error was a disease," they concluded, "it would rank as the third leading cause of death in the United States," after heart disease and cancer.

The authors defined error as:

  • An unintended act (either of commission or omission);

  • An act that does not achieve its intended outcome;

  • The failure of a planned action to be completed (an error of execution);

  • The use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim (an error of planning); or

  • Deviation from the process of care.

More than 500 readers commented on Medscape's original coverage of the study, expressing everything from frank disbelief to admonishment for dissemination of the study's findings. Readers who found the study results credible and thought-provoking were decidedly in the minority. Most found issue with the authors' definition of medical errors. What do you think?


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