MEDICAL error is the third most common cause of death in the US, according to estimates in a study published in the BMJ.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore examined the results from four major studies on medical errors between year 2000 and 2008 and calculated an estimated mean rate of death of 251,454 per year due to medical error - 9.5 per cent of all deaths in the US.
The authors compared this to official CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) figures on causes of death and found that medical error by this estimate would be the third leading cause of death in the US behind heart disease and cancer, though ahead of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
The CDC currently compiles statistics using death certificates assigning an International Classification of Disease (ICD) code to the cause of death but this means that causes not associated with the code, such as human and system factors, are not captured.
The authors conclude that: "Medical error leading to patient death is under-recognized in many other countries, including the UK and Canada… When a medical error results in death, both the physiological cause of the death and the related problem with delivery of care should be captured."
"To achieve more reliable healthcare systems, the science of improving safety should benefit from sharing data nationally and internationally, in the same way as clinicians share research and innovation about coronary artery disease, melanoma, and influenza. Sound scientific methods, beginning with an assessment of the problem, are critical to approaching any health threat to patients. The problem of medical error should not be exempt from this scientific approach. More appropriate recognition of the role of medical error in patient death could heighten awareness and guide both collaborations and capital investments in research and prevention."