The third biggest cause of death after heart disease and cancer is medical error, according to a study published in The BMJ

Currently, death certificates in the U.S. do not capture medical error as they primarily rely on International Classification of Disease (ICD) codes assigned to the cause of death. With over 100 countries coding their mortality data via the ICD codes, exact statistics on deaths associated with medical error is lacking. However, recent estimates suggest between 210,000-400,000 deaths yearly among hospitalized patients in the US. 

Study authors from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, analyzed studies from 1999-present and extrapolated the total number of U.S. hospital admissions in 2013 to calculate a mean rate of death from medical error of 251,454 per year. 

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They stated that better systems can be implemented to “mitigat[e] its frequency, visibility, and consequences” of errors. Some strategies to decrease death from medical care are: 

— Making errors more visible when they occur so their effects can be intercepted

— Having remedies at hand to rescue patients

— Making errors less frequent by following principles that take human limitations into account

Examples include adding an extra field in death certificates asking whether a preventable complication from the patient’s medical care contributed to the death or for hospitals to conduct a fast and efficient investigation into deaths to establish the potential contribution of error. The study authors added a need for more recognition of the role of medical error in patient mortality to raise awareness and investments for research and prevention.

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