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Recent study says nearly half million die due to medical malpractice each year

The Institute of Medicine's 1999 report, "To Err is Human," astonished the country with its findings that up to 98,000 people per year die as a result of medical malpractice. While some argued the number was less, many felt that it could be slightly more considering how much does not get reported. Today, we are finding out that "slightly" is an understatement. In a new study published in the Journal of Patient Safety by John James, the doctor says that the number of deaths resulting from medical malpractice and easily preventable harm ranges from 210,000 to 440,000 people per year. By that estimation, medical malpractice is the third leading cause of death in the United States behind only heart disease and cancer.

The estimates gathered by James, a NASA toxicologist who is the leader of a patient advocacy organization called Patient Safety America, came by way of tragedy. Dr. James became increasingly aware and proactive about medical malpractice after his 19-year-old son died in what James has always regarded as preventable harm that lead to death. James's book, A Sea of Broken Hearts, tells the story of his son's death and the events leading up to it. It recalls the tragic events of his promising, young 19-year-old who, despite being evaluated by teams of cardiologists, died under hospital care. In his book, James talks at length about the dangers of our profit-driven health care system and the author even comes up with his own "Patient Bill of Rights," a ten point plea to Congress that he feels should be enacted to protect all of us from the dangers of negligent physicians, nurses, and other hospital staff. 

The American Hospital Association falls back on the 1999 report of 98,000, but James insists that "We need to get a sense of the magnitude of this." In response the doctor's research, ProPublica--the self-quipped "Journalism in the Public Interest" website--decided to track down three highly touted patient safety researchers to ask them about the credibility of his research. Harvard pediatrician and "father of patient safety," Dr. Lucian Leape, sat on the committee that wrote "To Err is Human" and told ProPublica that he is confident in James's findings. Dr. David Classen, a lead developer of the Global Trigger Tool--the scientifically proven method of pinpointing medical errors--said that Dr. James's research is a "sound use of the tool and a great contribution." Classen said it is essential to update the numbers from the 1999 "To Err Is Human" report because it's not 1999 anymore. And Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, whose book, Unaccountable, calls for greater clarity in all aspects of health care, said that James's updated numbers show that "eliminating medical errors must become a national priority." Leape, Classen, and Makary all agree that the time to quit referring to the 1999 estimate of 98,000 is long gone.

Healthcare, today, is a complex thing. Many patients have limited recorded history available. The doctor/patient relationship of our parents' days has long been forgotten. Tests are today's protocol and there is a "get them in, get them out" approach to everything. Research is less coordinated and findings aren't shared nearly as much as they once were. Medications are bought by the lowest bidder and sold at maximum profit--and most don't mix well. Pharmaceutical companies and "Big Drugs" conglomerates push the next new thing without proper FDA inspections in order to turn billion dollar profits with no regard to your health. There are a great number of factors that have led to gaudy death estimates such as 440,000, but that is the reality with which we deal. At the onset of Obamacare and the new age of healthcare in the United States, we can only hope that stricter regulations will be laid down on insurance companies and hospitals in an effort to reduce the senseless deaths caused by medical malpractice each year.

Source: NPR News, "How Many Die from Medical Mistakes in U.S. Hospitals?" 20 September 2013

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