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The Leading Cause of Death That Nobody’s Talking About

Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiles a list of the most common causes of death among Americans. This list is significant—it helps raise public awareness about particular health risks and it steers national research priorities. It is also inaccurate.

The CDC bases its rankings on data derived from death certificates, which assign an International Classification of Disease code to each cause of death. However, to this day there is no ICD code that corresponds to medical errors.

This omission is no accident. Preventable medical errors have been known by the healthcare industry to be a leading cause of death since at least 1999, when the Institute of Medicine referred to the 98,000 annual deaths they estimated were due to errors as an “epidemic.”

Even the IOM figure was found to be a colossal underestimation, as the 98,000 estimated deaths were arrived at not through primary research but through data from prior studies. In at least one of those studies—the 1984 Harvard Medical Practice Study—the chief investigator later admitted to greatly underreporting medical errors as a cause of death.

An analysis published in the BMJ last week found medical errors to be responsible for roughly 251,000 American deaths every year, making it the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. Preventable medical errors claim more American lives than Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and pneumonia combined.

“It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care,” said Johns Hopkins professor of surgery Martin Makary, who led the study.

The fact that 9.5% of all American deaths are caused by the mistakes of doctors and other healthcare providers is surely embarrassing, but for the CDC to hide this information is far worse. It is dishonest and detrimental to the improvement of American healthcare.

It is also unsurprising. “We all know how common it is,” said Makary. “We also know how infrequently it’s openly discussed.”

According to the World Health Organization, 116 other countries categorize causes of death using the ICD system, meaning that they are also not accurately reporting preventable errors.

Minimizing the instances of medical error only serves to hide the extent of the problem, and as a result it does all patients a disservice. The CDC needs to include medical errors in its annual list of leading causes of death not to shame or demonize healthcare providers, but to shine a light on a real and fixable problem.

Sources: Cha, Ariana Eunjung, “Researchers: Medical errors now third leading cause of death in United States,” The Washington Post, 3 May 2016.

Martin, Makary A., and Michael Daniel, “Medical error—the third leading cause of death in the US,” The BMJ, 3 May 2016.

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