In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published the famous “To Err Is Human” report, which dropped a bombshell on the medical community by reporting that up to 98,000 people a year die because of mistakes in hospitals. The number was initially disputed, but is now widely accepted by doctors and hospital officials — and quoted ubiquitously in the media. In 2010, the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services said that bad hospital care contributed to the deaths of 180,000 patients in Medicare alone in a given year. Now comes a study in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety that says the numbers may be much higher — 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, the study says. That would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease, which is the first, and cancer, which is second.I wish these reports would provide some detail on what these really mean. Is it 250,000 people that were completely healthy coming in for a physical and they die when they would have been healthy if the medical system didn't exist? I doubt it. Is it 2,000 completely healthy people and 248,000 people that were under intensive medical care for years keeping them alive and now we slipped up and they died? Probably not, again, but my guess is it is closer to the second. Preventing errors is obviously important. And in health care it is very important, of course. But just because you use data doesn't mean it isn't misleading. Medical errors leading to death is just too big an operational definition to be very meaningful in my opinion. For these numbers to provide much insight I really think they need to be segmented more:
- perfectly health person that was going to be perfectly healthy for decades but were killed by medical error.
- person that needed life saving care of they were going to die that month and we routinely should be able to provide the very easy care to make them perfectly healthy again but they were killed.
- person that was extremely sick with many problems for years and was saved with medical care over and over again. Complex care was needed and much of it was done well but in the very challenging situation there was a mistake and that mistake is the proximate cause of death.