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Medical errors are the third leading cause of death

According to a study done by patient safety researchers, medical errors have climbed into third place, after cancer and heart disease, as a leading cause of death in the United States. The findings, which were published in the BMJ, or British Medical Journal, underscore the prevalence of serious medical mistakes that include everything from giving a patient drugs that were meant for someone else to removing the wrong body part during surgery.

Comprehensive research

The researchers took their analyses from four large studies, including those prepared by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Office of the Inspector General, Health and Human Services Department. Based on the information available, the new study shows that 251,000 deaths annually can be attributed to medical error. That equates to about 9.5 percent of all deaths, from every cause, each year in the U.S.

Keeping the problem quiet

While doctors, hospitals and other health care personnel and facilities emphasize patient safety to the public and highlight the safety features they have in place, the health care community is not as forthcoming about medical errors. The doctors themselves are not seen as the root of the problem, however; medical mistakes appear to be largely systemic in nature, arising from the diverse and complex methods by which health care is provided.

What can be done

Researchers feel that when people need medical care, they tend to underestimate the fact that a medical mistake could happen. Patients and family members should ask more questions of medical personnel and not be afraid to bring up concerns about medications, recommendations or decisions made by medical professionals. Researchers also believe that more detailed information should be added to death certificates to show whether a complication as the result of patient care might have had bearing on the demise of the patient. It is also recommended that hospital personnel perform a swift, independent investigation into a death to learn whether a medical error might have played a part.

Looking for support

While doctors and hospital personnel refrain from informing the public when a medical error is discovered, researchers note that change is often brought about through public pressure. Standardizing data collection and reporting practices would help to bring more national attention to the problem. As families become better informed about the frequency of errors, they can use that knowledge to follow up with professionals when one of their own requires health care. Anyone who suspects that medical error has contributed to the serious illness or death of a loved one should not hesitate to contact an attorney experienced in medical malpractice cases for help.