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Long gone are the days when it’s safe for people like us to assume that only death is inevitable. A recently published article in The British Medical Journal has discovered that not only death, but human errors are also inevitable. This is an alarming situation wherein authors of The British Medical Journal have estimated 251,000 deaths that took place in the U.S. in 2013 were due to medical mistakes.

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You might be shocked to know the fact that this estimated figure is 2x as much compared to the death rate resulting from suicides, accidents, and firearms altogether in the U.S. If this isn’t going to be our main concern then what is?

The British Medical Journal published this paper to draw awareness to this dire issue and inspire a course of action to combat the situation.  Hopefully this paper draws comprehensive reporting coverage and ignites steps to be taken to eliminate deaths caused by medical mistakes.

The ultimate way out of this alarming situation as described by Professor Martin Makary, a lead researcher and a professor of surgery, and Michael Daniel of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is simply by admitting the problem publicly.

It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care,” Martin Makary told The Washington Post.

As we can see, medical error doesn’t seem to be a legitimate cause of death because it has never been reported as a cause of death on any death certificate, nor has it been taken into account statistically. The annual assessments made by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not make an assessment of “Medical Error” as one of the leading causes of death, which has so far kept this potent problem behind the curtains.

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Makary confirms that medical errors cause around 150,000 deaths each year, and asks the CDC to change the way it gathers data. This was through open message along with the study.

According to CDC, here’s the manner by which different conditions stacked up that same year:

  • Heart disease – 614,348
  • Cancer – 591,699
  • Medical error – 251,454
  • Chronic lower respiratory disease – 147,101
  • Accidents – 136,053
  • Stroke – 133,103
  • Alzheimer’s – 93,541
  • Diabetes – 76,488
  • Flu/pneumonia – 55,227
  • Kidney disease – 48,146

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It’s obvious that our so-called saviours of humanity, i.e. physicians, don’t want to lose their reputation by stating something like this as a cause of one’s death. “This patient had to die because my spatula was rusty.” If this was the real case scenario, the doctor could easily be dragged to court by the patient’s family. But nothing can be done in this regard unless and until we can make comprehensive reporting on this situation.

It is definitely not going to be easy to put weight on this problem. However, the argument of Makary and Daniel reads as follows:

The science of safety has matured to describe how communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors, poor judgment, and inadequate skill can directly result in patient harm and death.”

The estimated figure of 251,000 deaths mentioned earlier only includes the patients who died on the hospital bed and does not include the estimate of those patients who died after they were sent home by the doctors despite being severely ill. Thus, the estimate is only the first half of the story and there is a much bigger fish to catch.

Now the real problem arising is how to improve reporting on these situations. As the data gathered from BMJ suggests, few options can be taken into account for better reporting. The researchers revealed that “the science behind medical errors would improve if data was shared internationally and nationally.”

The BMJ report explains:

Instead of simply requiring cause of death, death certificates could contain an extra field asking whether a preventable complication stemming from the patient’s medical care contributed to the death.”

This brilliant idea is highly supported by the concerned citizens and has so far produced an 89% response rate. However, this is not the only out-of-box solution to this problem. Another reliable though more expensive solution to this problem is to recruit an independent investigation council with the power to investigate the deaths caused in hospital independently, without any give-or-take situation with the physicians and other staff members.

As they say, tongue has no bones in it so we can speak as we wish to but the real challenge here is to implement these ideas into reality and be the change. As long as this assessment remains a written theory, doctors aren’t going to be held accountable for the things they do.

A case study presented in BMJ describes how a woman was made to go through a series of unnecessary tests by a physician and how a needle used in one of these tests pierced her liver, eventually leading to her death due to rupture. This incident remained an untold story because the physician reported cardiovascular disease as the cause of her death.

Makary adds: “Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone away haven’t been recognised in any standardised method for collecting national statistics.”

The estimated rate of annual deaths due to medical errors seems to be rising higher and higher each year. The rise of deaths due to medical errors not long ago ranged from 44,000 to 195,000 but recently the scope of this situation recorded the range from 210,000 to 400,000.

Makary admits that doctors are human and they could make mistakes, but the system shouldn’t keep on perpetuating them. He says:

I think doctors and nurses and other medical professionals are the heroes of the patient safety movement and come up with creative innovations to fix the problems. But they need the support from the system to solve these problems and to help us help improve the quality of care.

The British Medical Journal finally concludes with the statement, “Although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences.”


More Sources:

Medical Errors Are No. 3 Cause Of U.S Deaths, Researchers Say” (NPR)

Are medical errors really the third most common cause of death in the U.S.?” (Science Based Medicine)

Researchers: Medical errors now third leading cause of death in United States” (The Washington Post)

Why Are Medical Mistakes Our Third Leading Cause of Death?” (Huffington Post)

Second study says medical errors third-leading cause of death in U.S.” (USA TODAY)

Medical errors may be third leading cause of death in the U.S.” (CNN)


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