Medical errors are still a leading cause of death in the U.S.

In 1999 a groundbreaking study showed how dangerous medical errors are. So why haven’t things changed?

In 1999 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its report "To err is human," which claimed that medical errors kill as many as 98,000 people in the United States every year. That report caused a huge stir in both the public and the medical community and finally brought to light just how prevalent and deadly medical errors had become. By bringing attention to the problem, it was hoped that healthcare facilities would take steps to improve patient care. However, as NPR reports, a more recent study says that if anything, medical errors have only gotten worse since that landmark report came out.

Third-leading cause of death

The most recent report was published in the BMJ and written by researchers at John Hopkins University. The study concluded that deaths caused by medical errors are likely to be much higher than the 1999 IOM report estimated. Instead, the BMJ study put the number of people killed in the U.S. due to medical errors at 251,000.

That alarmingly high figure would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, but ahead of respiratory disease, accidents, and stroke. In fact, about 9.5 percent of all deaths in the United States each year are caused by medical errors, which can include a wide range of mistakes, from dosage errors to communication problems.

Why aren't things improving?

Given that the most recent report came out 16 years after the IOM's report first brought light to the issue of medical errors, it is frustrating to see that improvements in patient care have been so lackluster. As the Washington Post reports, while there has definitely been more talk of medical errors, actual improvements have been hard to come by, with only hospital infection rates dropping significantly since 1999.

One of the reasons the problem remains unaddressed may be because it gets underreported in CDC statistics. The coding system used by the CDC for death certificates makes it extremely hard to track how big of a problem medical errors are nationally. One problem is that CDC mortality statistics only count the "underlying cause of death." That means that even if a patient admitted to a hospital suffer ing from a stroke dies because of a medical error and not the stroke itself, the cause of death is still listed as a stroke. As a result, getting healthcare facilities, the public, and regulators to treat medical errors seriously remains an uphill challenge.

Medical malpractice

With medical errors causing so much harm and pain, it's important for those who may have been hurt by a medical professional's alleged mistake to get help right away. A medical malpractice attorney can help clients in a number of ways, including by showing them what types of compensation may be available and how to go about making an effective claim.