According to a recent report in the BMJ medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. The chart below shows where the estimated number of deaths from medical error fit into known mortality data. The article makes the remarkable observation “medical error” is not allowed as the cause of death to be recorded on death certificates. Indeed, when “medical error” is entered into the ICD 10 look up site for CMS here is the result: There are no ICD-10 Codes that match that fragment.
To be fair, the rule for death certificates is the cause of death must be the final cause. For instance, even though smoking causes heart disease which leads to a myocardial infarction (heart attack), the allowed cause of death is myocardial infarction rather than smoking, which is truly the root cause. That’s just how the system has worked for decades. So if a medical error causes a myocardial infarction the doctor must list myocardial infarction as the cause of death — in most states the qualifier “due to …” is allowed and smoking could be entered by the doctor. Interestingly, if “medical error” is listed the death would become an “accidental death” requiring review by the medical examiner (not something most physicians or families want).
251,000 deaths in the United States are caused by medical errors. This fact has been hidden, like many other underlying causes of death. The effect is that research into medical errors is lacking, the funding for research is lacking and the problem is ignored. Why should heart disease research be funded when some “cardiac” deaths are actually due to a nurse giving the wrong medication to the patient. The research really needed is to find how to prevent the medication error.
Although the graph above is bad enough, consider that the size of the bars for heart disease, cancer and COPD should all be smaller — because the real cause, in many cases, is medical error.
The number of medical errors is staggering. The errors that cause death are just the tip of the iceberg. Lots and lots of medical errors only have minor consequences. Every physician makes several errors each day. Every review of a medical chart reveals numerous errors. Care providers are astounded by this news. However, simple things like not seeing a lab report with a low blood count until the following day is an error even if nothing bad happened as a result. Of course, it would be malpractice if something bad did happen as a result.
The prevailing notion in quality improvement circles is, “don’t waste your time unless there was a bad outcome.” This notion comes from a lack of staff, and intense criticism when a provider is involved. “What do you mean there was an error, my care was excellent, nothing bad happened, you should be fired.”
Although there is a real tendency to want to blame an individual provider, both small and large errors are the result of poor clinical processes. Even errors due to provider fatigue and lack of sleep are truly process problems — a provider who worked during the night should not be working the following day. A provider sick with a cold should not be working, but so often they are.
What needs to be done:
- Just like alcoholism, the first step is to admit there is a problem.
- See medical care as a process. Strive to make sure the same problem gets the same treatment every time in every location. OR change the process.
- Stop seeing medical care as art. What work of art ever killed a person?
- Separate the compensation for medical errors from improving medical processes. Injured patients need quick compensation and medical care needs quick changes to improve. Lawsuits seem to have little impact on process of care — if lawsuits prevent errors why are we in this mess?
- Establish a non-profit foundation to advocate for reducing medical errors — something the public might be very willing to support. Sorry, Heart Association, Lung Association, Cancer Association — some money needs to go toward reducing errors. After all, if a wonderful heart medication is given to the wrong patient what good is that?