Estimating deaths due to medical error: the ongoing controversy and why it matters.
Approach to Improving Safety
Setting of Care
A recent article asserted that medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States. This perspective questions the accuracy of this estimate. The authors note that this estimate was generated by simply combining medical error rates from prior studies, without adhering to guidelines for quantitative synthesis or accounting statistically for the uncertainty associated with the extrapolation of these studies. There are also inherent limitations in the original data, which used trigger tools to identify adverse events. The studies from which the error rates were calculated could not clearly determine whether the adverse events detected actually contributed to the patient's death. Patients who are critically ill tend to have more adverse events because they experience more medical interventions. However, their deaths may be due to the underlying illness rather than the medical care they received. The authors argue that an inaccurately high estimate for medical error–related mortality draws attention away from other crucial patient harms, such as pressure ulcers and medication safety, both of which rarely contribute to mortality but are of high priority to patients.