The Slatest

Medical Errors Have Become So Common That They Are Now a Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. 

patient in hospital room.
Why haven’t we reformed patient safety yet?

Thomas Northcut/Thinkstock

In a way, musician Tom Waits owes his iconic, gravelly purr to a medical error. Waits wasn’t the victim of the error: It was his Uncle Vernon, whose raspy, important-sounding voice was the single most important influence on Waits’ developing style. Later, Waits learned that the reason Uncle Vernon’s voice was so distinctive was that he had once undergone a throat operation in which doctors left behind a small pair of scissors and gauze. “Years later, at Christmas dinner, Uncle Vernon started to choke while trying to dislodge an errant string bean, and he coughed up the gauze and the scissors,” Waits told Buzz magazine in 1993.


That’s a great story. But in reality, preventable medical errors cause a grave amount of damage. Despite the medical mantra of “do no harm,” medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to an analysis released by Johns Hopkins researchers in the medical journal the BMJ this week. The report calculated that a whopping 251,000 deaths annually—or 700 deaths a day—are due not to lethal accidents or the inevitable progression of disease but commonplace, preventable errors that happen in medical facilities. That’s equivalent to 9.5 percent of deaths in the U.S. annually.


Writes the Washington Post:

“Medical errors” in hospitals and other health-care facilities are incredibly common and may now be the third-leading cause of death in the United States—claiming 251,000 lives every year, more than respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s.


Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the research, said in an interview that the category includes everything from bad doctors to more systemic issues such as communication breakdowns when patients are handed off from one department to another.

“It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care,” Makary said.

These horrifying statistics aren’t totally out of the blue. A 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine found that an “epidemic” of medical errors was plaguing the system, and that medical errors were responsible for an estimated 98,000 deaths a year. That report cited errors including delays in diagnosis, errors in operations and other procedures, dose errors, communication failures, and equipment failures. But this report, which found a far larger number of deaths, reviewed four other large studies and represents a more comprehensive analysis, reports the Post.

Sadly, it appears that we haven’t had much reform in the 17 years between.