Each time a new study is published about the severity and consistency of medical mistakes, the kind that injure or kill patients, the numbers seem to worsen.
A 1999 report titled "To Err is Human," published by the Institute of Medicine, suggested that nearly 100,000 people die annually due to medical malpractice. Initially, that number was the subject of great debate, but today most health care professionals agree and some think the number is actually much higher. A 2010 statement from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services said the number was closer to around 180,000. And in a most recent study, the Journal of Patient Safety reports numbers are somewhere between 210,000 and 440,000 each year, making medical malpractice and preventable harm that contributes to a person's death the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States behind cancer (2nd) and heart disease (1st).
While the American Hospital Association feels that that the number is closer to the Institute of Medicine's 98,000 deaths per year, safety researchers have inspected the Journal of Patient Safety's research methods and all agreed that while they couldn't speak to the high number of patient deaths, the research and subsequent findings were credible. Dr. Lucian Leape, the Harvard pediatrician widely referred to as the "father of patient safety," sat on the committee that wrote "To Err is Human" and he has recently confirmed that the Journal of Patient Safety's numbers are viable. However, the truth is that no one knows for sure what the actual number is, so we're left with estimates. Regardless, most feel it's safe to say that for what many consider to be the most medically advanced country in the western world, a quarter million deaths via medical malpractice and negligent health care professionals is embarrassing.
It comes down to trust and accountability. What doctor or nurse wants to admit that something they have done or not done led to the death of your loved one? And insurance companies that represent doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare professionals don't admit it either. When a patient dies under the care of a negligent physician or medical staff, it comes down to your word against theirs. There is an obvious incentive to minimize and hide errors, and that incentive is job security. There is no rush to report errors, to contribute their mistakes to a data pool in an effort to never relive those mistakes, or to fix faulty systemic issues that are the product of outdated tradition or poor teaching.
When medical errors are committed, hospitals, doctors, nurses, technicians, etc. are required, by Federal law, and under their own risk management insurance coverage, to disclose any such mistakes with patients and/or their families. However, studies today find more and more that these medical errors are not reported when they are made and are not usually found until after a patient has died. When that happens, it becomes a big game of finger pointing. In the United States, we pay exponentially more for some procedures and medications than anywhere else in the world. With our technology and work ethic, attributes others around the globe can only hope to emulate, there is no reason for so many senseless deaths each year under the care of medical professionals.
Source: NPR News, "How Many Die from Medical Mistakes in U.S. Hospitals?" 20 September 2013