Deadly Mistakes: Medical Errors Are 3rd Leading Cause of Death

Surgical instruments sit in a tray in an operating room.
(Image credit: Surgery photo via Shutterstock)

Medical errors may be the third leading cause of death in the United States, a new review suggests. But you wouldn't realize that fact by looking at the latest U.S. mortality statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the researchers for the new study said.

The review showed that about 251,000 deaths in 2013 stemmed from medical errors, placing this cause third behind heart disease (with about 611,000 deaths) and cancer (with 584,000 deaths). The next most common cause of death after medical errors was chronic lower respiratory infection, which accounted for nearly 150,000 deaths that year, the researchers found.

But because of how deaths are currently reported in the U.S., medical errors are rarely listed as the cause of death, said the review, published today (May 3) in the journal BMJ. [Top 10 Leading Causes of Death]

Indeed, deaths due to medical errors often go under-recognized, the authors wrote. Deaths are reported using an International Classification of Disease billing code, which assigns a specific code to each cause of death. While a vast number of codes correspond to specific health conditions, very few correspond to medical errors, the review said.

And so, the cause of a person's death is often reported as the disease the individual had, even if a medical error took the person's life, the researchers wrote. For example, in one instance, doctors made a tiny nick in a woman's liver during a procedure, the researchers wrote. But this nick led to complications that ultimately resulted in the woman's heart stopping, and so the cause of her death was recorded as a cardiovascular condition, the authors said.

To estimate how many deaths were actually caused by medical errors in a given year, the researchers looked at data from four studies about the rates of deaths due to medical errors. Then, the researchers looked at the total number of hospitalizations in 2013, and used the data to estimate the total number of deaths from medical error for the year. 

The researchers calculated that 251,454 deaths were caused by medical error in 2013, but even this number may be an underestimate, they wrote. A limitation of the study was that the rates of deaths due to medical error were available only for patients who died at a hospital, so the researchers couldn't account for deaths that occurred at home or in nursing homes, the authors wrote.

"Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country's research funding and public health priorities," Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery and health policy & management at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of the review, said in a statement.  [The Deadliest Day of the Week]

"Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don't appear on the list, the problem doesn't get the funding and attention it deserves," Makary said. More research into how to prevent medical errors is needed in order to address the problem, he said.   

Follow Sara G. Miller on Twitter @saragmiller. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.