Study: Medical Errors Are Third Leading Cause of Death

A Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study reveals deaths by medical mistakes are way under reported.

By Michael Hill

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study reveals what the medical profession has long realized: deaths by medical mistakes are way under reported.

“A lot of times when these errors do occur there aren’t systems in places for these hospitals and health systems to counteract them or to bring them to public light,” said Dr. Sharad Sahu.

Dr. Sahu — chief of internal medicine at HackensackUMC — says he’s not surprised at the study’s results. Hopkins researchers say medical errors have been unintentionally excluded from national health statistics based on a nearly 70-year-old method of classifying deaths. So, they examined studies and crunched the numbers. They measured their findings against the leading causes of death in the U.S. and concluded medical errors — at 251,000 in 2013 — actually are the third leading cause of death, surpassing respiratory diseases.

Study author Dr. Martin Makary said, “We were surprised by the scale.”

Dr. Makary says the medical profession doesn’t learn from its mistakes the way the aviation industry does after a crash when hearings and findings are public. Instead, medical malpractice lawsuits tend to get settled in secrecy with confidentiality agreements that prohibit the parties from talking about them.

“And that’s part of the problem, I believe, in patient safety, is that we have created this wall of silence where we don’t talk openly and honestly about the problems,” he said.

Britcher has handled hundreds of medical malpractice claims in New Jersey. He also was instrumental in the state enacting the Patient Safety Act. The law requires hospitals to report serious, preventable adverse events and an analysis of how to fix them to the state health department.

Britcher says he’s confident hospitals are following parts of the law revealing some teachable lessons for the profession. But, he says evidence shows too often hospitals are omitting important treatment information from patients’ charts.

“I think it’s because of the fact that they anticipate that no one’s going to notice that part because the department of health isn’t looking for that part,” Britcher said.

His thoughts about not notifying patients? “Well, I think that’s a travesty because the law was designed so that they can report to the patient or the patient’s next of kin or the patient’s health care representative what has transpired and it can’t be used against them in a litigation. So why wouldn’t you do it?” he asked.

“We approach safety from a team approach. Safety and quality is our number one priority for our patients,” Dr. Sahu said.

HackensackUMC just got its ninth straight “A” from the national nonprofit Leapfrog Group which has graded hospitals twice a year since 2012 on preventable medical errors, injuries, accidents and infections. However, a Google search shows HackensackUMC has both won and lost lawsuits for medical mistakes that led to death and permanent disability over the last decade or so.

But, Dr. Sahu says the medical center has earned its high marks by practicing safety from the ER to the OR to the most routine visit.

“If you don’t have an appropriate system and an appropriate team in place, you are, may have potential avenues for errors, but not here. Here we are looking at all our processes through each service line,” he said. “And if there is — by the small chance — an error that occurs we evaluate each one individually with a significant root cause analysis, making sure there’s proper next-steps education for our entire staff.”

To help prevent medical mistakes, the medical malpractice attorney has some suggestions for patients.

“Ask questions and get answers,” Britcher said.

Other suggestions: research a doctor’s credentials and medical malpractice history. Ask your primary doctor about specialty doctors and question new procedures and devices because as the medical malpractice attorney says, there’s a learning curve on everything.

You can research a doctor’s credentials and medical malpractice history at

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight