By Don Vaughan
Medical errors now are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind cancer and heart disease, according to arecent article in the medical journal The BMJ . It’s a sobering thought, but patients can protect themselves, consumer advocates say.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore report the number of deaths due to medical errors has risen from an estimated 100,000 patient fatalities a year to around 250,000 and possibly more.
“One of the things that led to our study was we wanted to increase funding at a policy level for patient safety,” notes lead analyst Dr. Martin Makary, who holds a master of public health (M.P.H.) and is professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won't Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care (Bloomsbury, 2013). “We’ve spent a lot of time and money on heart disease and cancer but have not fully appreciated the role of medical care gone wrong as the third leading cause of death.”
Makary defines a medical error as anything that goes wrong over the course of a patient’s medical care. This includes preventable complications such as hospital-acquired infections, medication errors, diagnostic errors, and issues resulting from poor communication when a patient is transferred from one medical unit to another.
A variety of factors can lead to medical errors, says Erica Mobley, director of communications and development for The Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit organization that collects and reports information about hospital safety and quality. “Hospitals are very complex places and it is really easy for an error to occur,” she explains. “Hospitals are staffed by doctors and nurses, who are human, and humans make mistakes. We can’t expect our doctors and nurses to be absolutely perfect.”
However, institutions can take steps to reduce medical errors, Mobley says. “Medical facilities with low rates of medical errors typically have protocols and systems in place to catch errors before they happen,” she notes. One way to prevent medication errors, for example, is the use of computerized prescriber order entry, an electronic system that issues an alert if a prescriber tries to enter a medication that could harm a patient.
And on the surgical side, Makary developed a detailed checklist that ensures everyone is on the same page throughout a surgical procedure. The checklist was later adopted by the World Health Organization and now is used worldwide.
Health care professionals play their role, but patients also should be engaged and active members of their care team. “Patients have a very important role in their health care, sometimes the most important role,” says Rear Adm. Jeffrey Brady, USPHS, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).
Consider the following tips to help protect yourself: