According to a recent article published in the BMJ, medical errors may claim as many as 251,000 lives in the United States each year. If “medical error” had been listed on death certificates as a cause of death, this number would make it the third most common cause of death annually, after only heart disease and cancer.
While the study has garnered a great deal of attention, its focus on deaths due to medical error means that it has left a closely-related question open for study: How many severe patient injuries are caused by medical error in the U.S. each year?
Some research has been done on the question. While studies vary in their results, some researchers estimate that severe injuries may occur at 40 times the rate of deaths due to medical error. In other words, for every person in the U.S. who dies due to a medical error, 40 are injured – some of them permanently. These numbers would mean that over 10 million injuries due to medical error occur in the U.S. each year.
Gathering information on the rate of injury due to medical error is tough. Like deaths, injuries due to medical error aren’t tracked by any national authority. Instead, individual hospitals and facilities are left to track the numbers themselves, and a lack of tracking or reporting of data makes it difficult for patients or the public to know what’s happening.
Tracking injuries is also difficult, because facilities may not see an injury as the result of a “medical error” – at least not right away. For instance, patients with severe medical conditions are expected to be suffering or in pain immediately after a major surgery or other procedure. At first, health care providers may not be able to determine the difference between this suffering and suffering due to medical errors. This is especially true if they have not been trained to spot signs that could tell them the difference, or if reporting of unusual symptoms is lacking.
As in deaths by medical error, injuries can also be widely complex and varied, from a surgeon operating on the wrong body part to a patient receiving the wrong medication or dose. The variability of these errors, and the settings in which they occur, also make spotting them difficult – and make fixing them even tougher.