Cases of horrifying medical errors, like surgeons amputating the wrong
body parts or nurses administering medications to the wrong patient, often
make the headlines and frequently frighten those who read them. However,
the reality may be even more concerning than 60 Minutes-type exposes suggest,
according to a recent study published in the
British Medical Journal (BMJ).

The BMJ study concluded that “medical errors” are far more
common than patients, doctors, and hospital administrators realize. In
fact, they may be the third-leading cause of death in the United States,
contributing to the deaths of as many as 251,000 people each year.

The analysis published in the BMJ examined all types of medical errors,
from doctors making wrong diagnoses to communication problems when patients
are moved from one department or physician to another. The common thread
in all the cases labeled “medical error” was that patients
died due to the treatment they received, rather than due to the condition
they were attempting to have treated.

Medical errors have made the news more and more in recent years, in part
due to ongoing attempts at hospitals nationwide to reduce their rates.
A 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) referred to an “epidemic”
of medical errors; that report stimulated many medical facilities to start
taking a closer look at their own error rates and methods of prevention.

That 1999 study estimated that 98,000 lives per year were lost to medical
errors – less than half of the deaths estimated by the recent BMJ analysis.

The BMJ study analyzed four larger studies, including studies from the
Department of Health and Human Services (DHHM) and the Agency for Healthcare
Research and Quality (AHRQ). The data involved were gathered between 2000
and 2008 – after the IOM issued its “wake-up call.”

At 251,000 deaths per year, the new study’s estimate means that about
700 people per day in the United States die of preventable medical errors.
It also means that medical errors cause up to 9.5 percent of all deaths
in the United States each year. Only heart disease and cancer claim more
lives each year, according to the researchers’ analysis and estimates.