A new study published by BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in May 2016 suggests that medical errors may cause more deaths than lower respiratory diseases. This would make medical errors the third leading cause of death (following heart disease and cancer) in the United States. The study indicates that at least 251,454 deaths each year are due to medical error. This number is much higher than that reported by previous studies. One reason for such discrepancy may be the lack of accurate data regarding deaths caused by medical error. Causes of death listed on death certificates are based on insurance billing codes, which “are designed to maximize billing rather than capture medical errors.” As a result, death certificates fail to address human errors or other system failures.
The doctors who completed the study hope that their analysis will “lead to real reform in a health care system [that] is letting patients down.” They suggest that better reporting mechanisms must be put in place to address medical errors that lead to death. Some proponents believe that a space should be added on death certificates to indicate whether death was related to a medical error. However, to avoid legal implications when a doctor indicates such a cause of death, legislation would need to attach some protection or privilege to this information (for example, by prohibiting the information to be used in a lawsuit). Such legal protections would encourage accurate reporting by doctors and, in turn, would help establish a course of action for minimizing the most common medical errors that lead to patient death.