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Medical Errors Reported as a Leading Cause of Death

Author / Coordinator:  
Scwebel, Goetz & Sieben
March 2007

WASHINGTON — According to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine, medical errors are responsible for at least 44,000 deaths each year in the United States and possibly as many as 98,000 each year.  This means that more people die from medical mistakes each year than from breast cancer, highway accidents, or AIDS, the report noted.

The report entitled "To Err is Human" was released by the Institute of Medicine which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, a private organization created by Congress to advise government on scientific matters.

"These stunningly high rates of medical errors resulting in deaths, permanent disability, and unnecessary suffering are simply unacceptable in a medical system that promises to ‘do no harm,” says William Richardson, Chair of the Committee that wrote the report and President and Chief Executive Officer of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, Michigan.

According to the report, medical mistakes occur not only in hospitals but in day surgery and outpatient clinics, retail pharmacies, nursing homes, and home care.  The report states that medication errors alone contribute to more than 7,000 deaths annually, exceeding those resulting from workplace injuries.

The report cited deficiencies in a number of areas, from illegible writing in medical records to the failure of physicians to regularly retest their competence after receiving their license to practice.  The report claims that the health care industry is far behind other high-risk industries, such as the airline industry, in its attention to ensuring basic safety.  To address these alarming rates of medical mistakes, the report recommends dramatic changes to the health care system to achieve a minimum goal of a fifty (50%) percent reduction in medical mistakes within five (5) years.

On December 1, 1999, President Clinton called for the health care community to work to eliminate these mistakes.  "We’ve got to work through how we can use technology, and how we can maybe even slow some of the actions, to make sure that mistakes like this aren’t made," said Clinton.  "Any error that causes harm to a patient is one error to many," said Dr. Nancy Dickey, past President of the American Medical Association.

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