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A recent report released by the patient safety experts at Johns Hopkins has identified medical errors as being the third leading cause of death in the United States. The study revealed that medical errors alone account for more than 250,000 deaths a year. In the study, Johns Hopkins researches gathered data from four different studies to analyze death rate data over an eight-year period from 2000-2008. Then, using hospital admission rates from 2013, the researchers found that out of 35,416,020 hospitalizations, 251,454 deaths were caused by medical error. The medical errors identified in the study covered a wide range including, surgical complications that went unrecognized to miscommunication regarding the proper dose or type of medication a patient should receive.

Interestingly, this new John’s Hopkins study conflicts with findings from the Center for Disease Control which has identified respiratory disease, which kills 150,000 a year, as being the third leading cause of death. The first two leading causes of death identified by the CDC include heart disease, causing over 600,000 deaths a year and cancer, causing over 500,000 deaths a year. Researchers at Johns Hopkins claim the discrepancy between the two studies has to do with the way the CDC collects national health statistics.

According to the team at Johns Hopkins, the CDC’s coding system used to record death certificate data fails to capture things like communication breakdowns, poor judgment that cost lives, and diagnostic errors. As such, the study’s researchers are advocating for changes in the criteria used to classify deaths on death certificates. Specifically, they recommend including a new question on death certificates that asks if a preventable complication of care contributed to the individual’s death. It is reasonable to conclude from this, in my opinion, that medical errors are even more prevalent than the new study documents.

In response to the study the chief of mortality statistics branch for the CDC, Bob Anderson, states that the CDC’s approach is consistent with international guidelines. Anderson notes that this approach is important because it allows U.S. death statistics to be compared with the death statistics of other countries. Therefore, the CDC appears reticent to modify their coding system without a compelling reason. Instead of modifying death certificates, Anderson claims that the better approach is to stress to doctors the importance of reporting medical errors.

Importantly, the John’s Hopkins researchers caution that the identification of medical errors should not be interpreted as being the result of inherently bad doctors. Instead, the researchers claim that the medical errors identified represent a more systemic problem with the medical industry overall including: poorly coordinated care, a lack or underuse of safety protocols, fragmented insurance networks, and variation in physician practice. Yet, whatever the causes of these medical errors may be, this recent study reveals preventable medical errors are causing patients to pay a deadly price.

The medical malpractice aspect of the civil justice system in the United States serves the benificent dual purposes of compensating victims of medical mistakes (shifting some of the cost of these mistakes from innocent victims to those who insure the at fault parties) and providing consequences beyond peer review to decrease the occurrence rate of preventable medical mistakes. However, in recent years medical malpractice laws have been weakened in too many states, which may account for the increasing incidence deaths due to medical mistakes.

For people looking for medical malpractice attorneys, a great way to find one is through the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys (“ABPLA”). The ABPLA tests and, using stringent national criteria, board certifies qualified lawyers in medical malpractice. The ABPLA is the only national program accredited by the American Bar Association to issue attorney board certifications in medical malpractice and this impressive and difficult to earn credential is held by fewer than 200 attorneys nationwide. The ABPLA website is a great way to find a medical malpractice attorney.

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