The British Medical Journal published a study this week showing that medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Think about that for a moment: You are more likely to die from medical error than lung cancer, firearms or a motor vehicle accident combined. The study is based on an analysis of data looking at hospital inpatients among medicare patients and extrapolating these findings out to the population at large. That is, this does not even capture medical errors that occur in an outpatient setting. The example given in the study was a woman who died because of a doctor who mistakenly grazed her liver with a needle when attempting to do a test on her heart.
The authors of the study argue that death certificates should be changed to allow medical error to be listed as a cause of death. Currently that is not an option, so medical errors are not systematically tracked. This is problematic for studying the issue, and it also prevents hospitals and doctors form receiving feedback to improve their care. Doctors do not want to kill their patients, of course, so if hospitals routinely tracked this sort of information, it is likely they could take action to improve these statistics.
The study did not break up these numbers between men and women but given what we know about how women are more likely to be misdiagnosed for a variety of diseases, it stands to reason that women would have an even higher likelihood of dying from medical error than men. This study once again highlights how important it is for women to remain active in their care. The definition of "medical error" in the study included both accidental acts and accidental omissions of care. Therefore, it would include the numerous incidents reported on this blog and catalogued in other research of doctors attributing women's organic illnesses (brain tumor, heart attack, stroke, etc.) to a psychological cause and failing to give proper treatment.
Medical error is not an uncommon phenomenon. It is a modern health crisis. The US government spends millions on stop smoking campaigns to lower the incidence of lung cancer. Last year, 158,080 people died of lung cancer. That is approximately 100,000 fewer than people who died from inpatient medical errors and yet we don't even track those errors, let alone spend tens of millions of dollars to prevent them. Something needs to be done about this health threat, and the British Journal of Medicine's suggestion that we at least start counting the number of people who die would be a good start.