In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published a startling report revealing that 98,000 patients die in hospitals each year as a result of preventable medical errors. Even more startling – that number now appears to have been far too low. A new study published in the well-respected Journal of Patient Safety (Sept. 2013) indicates that medical mistakes kill as many as 440,000 each year, making medical errors the third leading cause of death in the United States. Only cancer and heart disease cause more deaths annually. It’s the equivalent of killing off the entire population of Miami or crashing 1,500 jumbo jets filled with passengers each year. If either of those scenarios were happening, there would be an understandable public outcry to address the unacceptable crisis. Medical errors, on the other hand, seem to be a “silent killer”, getting little attention and going largely unnoticed.
To be clear, these patients are not dying from the illnesses and injuries that caused them to seek medical care in the first place. Rather, they are dying from avoidable mistakes that happen once they seek treatment. The mistakes cover a wide variety of issues, but include such errors as leaving a sponge inside a patient following surgery, operating on the wrong body part, misreading a scan, giving a child a dose of medication intended for an adult, and misfiling a lab report so that it never gets read by a doctor.
Who pays for these errors? We all do. The costs, estimated to be in the billions annually, are passed on to other patients, to insurance companies (resulting in higher premiums for everyone), and to Medicare/Medicaid, which means that ultimately we as taxpayers are paying for the medical industry’s mistakes.