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We have all heard the horror stories of medical mistakes: the wrong breast is removed; the wrong kidney is implanted; the surgeon leaves a contaminant in the gastrointestinal tract. Terrifying though these stories may be, most of us assume that safety and sterility standards will be observed when we are hospitalized or operated on. We also assume that the medications our doctors prescribe will help, rather than harm, us.

Unfortunately, a recent study published in the BMJ  (formerly the British Medical Journal) reported that medical errors in hospitals and other healthcare facilities are now the third leading cause of death in this country, after cardiovascular disease and cancer. Such mistakes are responsible for the loss of 251,000 lives a year.

Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was a leader of this research, gave several reasons for this disturbing news, including:

  • Inferior doctors (many doctors on probations for serious violations are still practicing)
  • Breakdowns of communication among departments
  • Poor recordkeeping
  • Complexity and diversity of systems used
  • Breakdowns in sanitation procedures
  • Lack of standardization of medical and surgical procedures
  • Inconsistent investigations of medical mistakes

Makary is quoted as saying, “It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care.”  The number of deaths reported by the research study, 251,000, indicated that approximately 9.5 percent of all deaths in this country annually are attributable to medical error. Makary and his co-author, Michael Daniel, state that their purpose in conducting this analysis was to shed light on a serious problem that hospitals, healthcare facilities and the medical profession in general shy away from discussing. Even the CDC doesn’t routinely require reportage of medical errors.

One of the most alarming aspects of this study, according to Kenneth Sands, director of healthcare quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, is that since the report has been released only very few procedural changes have been made and therefore the numbers of medical errors have not noticeably decreased.