Medical Errors – 3rd Leading Cause of Death in the US
Wow. Quite an eye-opening Washington Post article describing a report published in the BMJ. A comprehensive study by researchers at the John Hopkins University has found that medical mistakes are now responsible for more deaths in the U.S. each year than Accidents, Respiratory Disease, and Strokes. They estimate over a quarter million people die each year in the U.S. due to mistakes made during medical procedures. And this does NOT include other sentinel events that do not result in death. Researchers include in this category “everything from bad doctors to more systemic issues such as communication breakdowns when patients are handed off from one department to another.” Other tidbits from this study:
- Over 700 deaths each day are due to medical errors
- This is nearly 10% of all deaths in the US each year
What’s particularly alarming is that a study conducted in 1999 showed similar results. That study called medical errors “an epidemic.” And yet, very little has changed since that report was issued. While a few categories have gotten better (hospital-acquired infections, for example), there has been almost no change in the overall numbers.
I’m sure there are many “causes” for these issues. This report focused on the reporting systems in the US (and many other countries) that make it almost impossible to identify medical error cases. And many other problems are endemic to the entire medical system:
- Insurance liabilities
- Inadequate reporting requirements
- Poor training at many levels
- Ineffective accountability systems
- between patient care and running a business
However, individual health care facilities have the most control over their own outcomes. They truly believe in providing the very best medical care to their patients. They don’t necessarily need to wait for national regulations to force change. They often just need a way to recognize the issues, minimize the local blame culture, identify problems, recognize systemic issues at their facilities, and apply effective corrective actions to those issues.
I have found that one of the major hurdles to correcting these issues is a lack of proper sentinel event analysis. Hospitals are staffed with extremely smart people, but they just don’t have the training or expertise to perform comprehensive root cause analysis and incident investigation. Many feel that, because they have smart people, they can perform these analyses without further training. Unfortunately, incident investigation is a skill, just like other skills learned by doctors, nurses, and patient quality staff, and this skill requires specialized training and methodology. When a facility is presented with this training (yes, I’m talking about TapRooT®!), I’ve found that they embrace the training and perform excellent investigations. Hospital staff just need this bit of training to move to the next level of finding scientifically-derived root causes and applying effective corrective actions, all without playing the blame game. It is gratifying to see doctors and nurses working together to correct these issues on their own, without needing some expensive guru to come in and do it for them.
Hospitals have the means to start fixing these issues. I’m hoping the smart people at these facilities take this to heart and begin putting processes in place to make a positive difference in their patient outcomes.