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Medical Error Is The Third Leading Cause Of Death In America, But It’s Never Reported On Death Certificates

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doctor in hospital corridor

It’s estimated at around 250,000 per year.

When the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts together its list of the most common causes of death in the United States every year, they gather their information from death certificates, which are filled out and filed by doctors, funeral directors, medical examiners, and coroners. The list is an important tool in raising public awareness and can even affect how medical research funds are doled out. So why is the third leading cause of death in America not included on it?

According to Dr. Martin Makary, professor of Surgery and Health Policy at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, it’s because the cause is medical error. And it goes unreported.

“Medical Error” is defined as error of execution -- when a planned action fails to have its intended outcome -- or as an unintended act that leads to death. Essentially: human error, which is not given a numerical designation by the CDC the way diseases are. This includes miscommunication, bad judgment, diagnostic mistakes, and just plain incompetence. These things are, sadly, all too commonplace but are not taken into account when compiling a survey of national health care in an effort to ascertain some level of risk assessment for the population.

Dr. Makary wrote that the estimated number of misreported medical error deaths is roughly 250,000 per year. He and others are pushing for changes in medical reporting to more accurately reflect what’s going on in our hospitals and medical centers. You can listen to Dr. Markary discuss his findings on BMJ Talk Medicine:


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