Medical errors now are the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to a new study.
Writing in The BMJ, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University say more than 250,000 deaths are caused by medical errors every year.
This means medical errors have passed respiratory disease as the third most likely cause of death.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps the official statistics about leading causes of death in the U.S., but Hopkins researchers say the CDC's way of collecting data “fails to classify medical errors separately on the death certificate.”
"Incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry haven't been recognized in any standardized method for collecting national statistics," said Martin Makary, professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an authority on health reform. "The medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used."
The researchers say the CDC’s methods, which were adopted in 1949, need to be changed to account for medical mistakes.
"At that time, it was under-recognized that diagnostic errors, medical mistakes, and the absence of safety nets could result in someone's death," said Makary, "and because of that, medical errors were unintentionally excluded from national health statistics."
The researchers looked at death rate data from 2000 to 2008 as well as hospitalization rates from 2013. Using that data, they determined that out of more than 35.4 million hospitalizations, medical errors caused more than a quarter million deaths.
This, researchers say, represents 9.5 percent of all deaths in the U.S. each year.
In 2013, the CDC said heart disease was the leading cause of death in the U.S., with cancer the second, followed by respiratory disease.
"Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC inform our country's research funding and public health priorities," Makary says. "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."
Researchers caution that medical errors should not be synonymous with bad doctors, but “represent systemic problems, including poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or underuse of safety nets, and other protocols, in addition to unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns that lack accountability.”