The recent spate of stories calling medical errors the third leading U.S. cause of death — triggered by an article from Johns Hopkins researchers — shows both the power and challenges of tracking patient safety. Our research director, Paul Karner, explains why such estimates vary widely — and may still understate the true dimensions of the problem.
In a recent article published in the journal The BMJ, Dr. Martin Makary and Michael Daniel of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine characterized medical error as the third leading cause of death in the U.S., with more than a quarter-million deaths annually.
The article attracted substantial attention, providing both a boost to awareness of patient safety (as reflected in the number of internet searches for the term “medical error;” see chart above) and also a glimpse into the challenges of measuring harm.
As you may have read, the Makary/Daniel estimate was not actually based on new primary research. Instead, the authors extrapolated results from four earlier studies to all 35.4 million U.S. hospital admissions in 2013.