Medical Malpractice Now the #3 Cause of Death in America

William E. Johnson
February 9, 2014


            The #3 cause of death in America-- behind heart disease and cancer-- is medical mistakes. Between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death.

Increasing Estimates

            In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published the now-famous “To Err is Human,” revealing that up to 98,000 people die every year in hospitals because of medical mistakes. In 2010, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services said that subpar hospital care contributed to the deaths of 180,000 patients in Medicare alone every year.

Likely 400,000 Deaths Per Year Due to Medical Error

            Now comes a report in the Journal of Patient Safety that says the number is much higher. The study reveals that there is a lower limit of 210,000 deaths per year associated with preventable harm in hospitals. Given the limitations of the study, the Journal estimates that the true number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients is more than 400,000 per year. Further, “serious harm” is 10- to 20- fold more common than lethal harm.

Serious Adverse Events in as Many as 21% of Cases.

            The new estimates are based upon four recent studies that identified “adverse events” using a screening method called the Global Trigger Tool. The Global Trigger Tool guides reviewers through medical records, searching for signs of infection, injury, or error.  The records that are flagged are then reviewed by a doctor, who determines the extent of the harm. In the four studies, researchers found serious adverse events in as many as 21% of cases reviewed, and rates of lethal adverse events in as many as 1.4% of cases.

Third-Leading Cause of Death

            Whether using the lower figure of 210,000 or the more accurate figure of 400,000, either would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind only heart disease and cancer. The more accurate number would account for roughly one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the United States each year. Remarking upon his findings, John T. James opined that it is time for medical reform. "Perhaps it is time for a national patient bill of rights for hospitalized patients," James wrote. "All evidence points to the need for much more patient involvement in identifying harmful events and participating in rigorous follow-up investigations to identify root causes."

Medical Malpractice

            Regardless of the actual numbers or potential reform, it is clear that way too many people are being harmed by negligent medical care. Medical malpractice occurs when treatment by a health care provider falls below the accepted standard of care in the medical community and leads to the injury or death of a patient. If you feel as though you have been harmed due to medical error, contact an experienced West Palm Beach injury attorney. If you or a loved one has been injured by a healthcare professional, you may be able to file a medical malpractice lawsuit to recover compensation for lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering. William E. Johnson has experience in handling complicated medical malpractice litigation and will ensure that your rights are protected.