An analysis by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and published in the
BMJ has named medical error the third leading cause of death in the United
States each year, following only heart disease and stroke. According to
the Johns Hopkins researchers, lack of reporting, transparency, and an
unwillingness to talk about the problem may be causing great harm.

The study found that up to 251,000 deaths may be caused by medical errors
each year – over twice as many as were estimated by the Institute
of Medicine in 1999, in a study that many in the medical profession claimed
was a “wake-up call.” Since then, many hospitals and other
facilities have pushed for patient safety. Many have made their patient-safety
efforts a cornerstone of their marketing and public outreach campaigns.

Despite this “buzz” about patient safety, however, studies
show that the rate of medical errors hasn’t changed much since the
1999 IOM report. The rate of hospital-acquired infections has dropped
since that time – but other types of medical errors continue to
occur at roughly the same rate they did in the past. Despite nearly twenty
years of “hype,” we appear to have made little progress.

What’s gone wrong? According to the Johns Hopkins researchers, one
major problem is lack of reporting. Few healthcare facilities actually
provide data or statistics on the effectiveness of their safety training
and protocols – including information on actual types and rates
of medical error.

There is little federal oversight as well. Although the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC) collects information about patient deaths,
it does not require facilities to report deaths due to medical error.
This makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of when, how, and what
type of errors are claiming lives.

Finally, lack of oversight at the state level has made it difficult to
catch medical errors, correct the problems that lead to them, or to discipline
doctors or facilities that persist in making serious errors. A 2016 Consumer
Reports investigation of California’s medical licensing records,
for instance, found that a number of doctors who were on probation for
seriously harming patient safety were nonetheless still practicing medicine.