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Medical mistakes kill more Americans than strokes, Alzheimer's
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University say human error, not disease, is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and challenge the CDC to be more forthcoming about medical mistakes. - photo by Jennifer Graham
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say human error, not chronic lower respiratory disease, is the third leading cause of the death in the U.S. and that Americans deserve to know the scope of deadly mistakes in the medical profession.

In a letter to CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor and three medical students say more than 250,000 Americans die each year from preventable mistakes in four areas: the providers' judgment, skill or coordination of care; diagnostic errors; system defects and preventable adverse effects.

"Medical mistakes that can lead to death range from surgical complications that go unrecognized to mix-ups with the doses or types of medications patients receive," an NPR report said.

Together, these deaths accounted for at least 251,454 deaths in 2013, surpassing the CDC's official third cause of death by more than 100,000, according to a study published May 3 in The BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

According to government statistics, heart disease (611,105 deaths) cancer (584,881) and respiratory disease (149,205) were the top three causes of death that year.

The failure to include medical mistakes in the CDC's accounting means that few research dollars go to preventing errors in the profession. "It is time for the country to invest in medical quality and patient safety proportional to the mortality burden it bears," the letter said.

The lead author, Johns Hopkins surgeon Martin Makary, told NPR reporters Marshall Allen and Olga Pierce that the CDC's list helps determine the nation's health priorities and how grants are awarded.

"You have this overappreciation and overestimate of things like cardiovascular disease, and a vast underrecognition of the place of medical care as the cause of death," Makary said.

But Dr. Eric Thomas, a professor of medicine at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School, told NPR that while medical errors are underreported, it would be premature to include them on the mortality list.

Thomas' research was included in a 1999 report that called medical errors an "epidemic" that contributes to 98,000 deaths each year.

The Johns Hopkins research, however, was more comprehensive, according to The Washington Post. Makary and his team analyzed four studies that took place between 2000 and 2008 and found an average of 700 mistake-related deaths a day, the Post's report said.

"We all know how common it is," Makary told Ariana Eunjung Cha of the Post. "We also know how infrequently its openly discussed."

The study comes on the heels of other news that raises questions about the proficiency of some American doctors. The Washington Post reported in April on doctors who perform high-risk procedures with scant experience, a practice that three prominent hospitals, including Johns Hopkins, have pledged to prevent.

And the skills of pediatric surgeons, in particular, suffer when they don't perform complex procedures often enough, a Chicago study released in March said.

Dr. Erika Schwartz, a New York physician and author of "Don't Let Your Doctor Kill You," says there are ways patients can protect themselves from bad outcomes. Writing for U.S. News & World Report, she says to find a doctor who makes eye contact, asks personal questions and seems genuinely interested in your health, and to decline procedures you're uncomfortable with, even if your insurance will pay for it.

"Regardless of why, every test and procedure has risks, and there are no guarantees that doing more will lead to better outcomes," Schwartz said.
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