Are medical errors the third leading cause of death?

Is this true? Statistically, yes. In reality, probably not. Photo: Hospital/ AP

WASHINGTONSeptember 28, 2013 — Estimates of the number of Americans who die due to medical errors are between 400,000 and 425,000 annually, according to the Journal of Patient Safety.

Statistically, this suggests that medical errors are the third largest cause of death in the United States, behind cancer and heart disease.


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In 2000, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) printed an article by Dr. Barbara Starfield highlighting the staggering number of deaths from medical error. According to Starfield, the estimated annual deaths from non-error adverse effects from medications total 106,000; from hospital infections, 80,000; from assorted hospital error, 45,000; from unnecessary surgery, 12,000; and from medication errors, 7,000.

The World Health Organization reports that American medicine ranks overall 12th on a list of 13 countries with modern medical care. However, Starfield and others point out that considering the advanced technology and applicable knowledge and experience doctors bring to bear in treatment, the relative outcome for patients overall are as poor as many countries that do not have access to superior medical training and technology.

Prescribing pharmaceuticals that other countries do not prescribe or that patients cannot afford, and the high rate of pharmaceutically generated illness and death may be a contributor to this statistic.

Removing the pharmaceutical equation may greatly improve standings.


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More importantly, examining the medical profession as a whole, the amount of deaths from exposure to medicine may not be as drastic as statistics may show. Doctors do not issue prescriptions without clear forethought and there are risks with any medication.

There is always the risk/reward consideration when assigning prescriptions. For example, if a 70 year old man needs a particular prescription to improve his life yet the indications are the medicine may have long term consequences, at age 70, long term is not so much an issue.

Additionally, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there are an estimated 954,000 doctors in the USA (a shortage of 150,000) issuing close to three billion prescriptions, 130 million emergency room visits, 35.1 million hospital discharges and 51.4 million hospital medical procedures annually.

Medicine is designed for the ill and/or dying. Many people do not visit a doctor until health issues are severe, complicating treatment. Others abuse prescriptions or do not take them as prescribed, and patients can be irresponsible regarding physicians’ advice. Additionally, some patients are allergic to medications or cannot tolerate them, and doctors do not realize an adverse reaction until they are dispensed and tried.


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Likewise, while a medical procedure may be safe and effective for the vast majority of patients, some may react violently.

Medical practitioners do make mistakes. It is said medicine is an art as much a science, and science does not offer all the answers but does suggest the best explanation.

While medical errors can certainly have catastrophic impact, positive medical care is critical for maintaining good health, treating medical problems and saving a patient from surgical procedures.

 

Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based writer and psychotherapist.


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