We’ve all heard the horror stories — a surgeon accidentally amputates the wrong leg, or open-heart surgery is performed on the wrong patient — and while these are the ones that grab the headlines, medical errors are a far more common occurrence than many believe. A controversial new study published in BMJ by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concludes that medical errors in hospitals and other health-care facilities may now be the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. That places medical error as cause of death above respiratory disease, accidents, and strokes, and is even more common than the combined totals of deaths caused by Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and the flu.

According to the study, deaths caused by medical error account for just over 250,000 per year. That equates to nearly 700 deaths per day caused by negligence, or 9.5% of all deaths annually. And yet, not much has changed in the past two decades.

While patient safety has become a talking point in recent years, it hasn’t always been. In 1999, an Institute of Medicine report called preventable medical errors an “epidemic” in its report called, “To Err is Human”, and challenged the medical establishment to revise its protocols. “It may be part of human nature to err, but it is also part of human nature to create solutions, find alternatives, and meet the challenges ahead,” the report concludes.

As reported by the Washington Post, Kenneth Sands, a medical director at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says that the Johns Hopkins University findings are shocking in that very limited change has occurred since the IOM report came out. “The overall numbers haven’t changed, and that’s discouraging and alarming,” he said. Sands states that one of the main obstacles that hospital and health-care providers face in reducing the overall incidences of medical errors is the lack of standardization in the medical establishment as a whole. “There has just been a higher degree of tolerance for variability in practice than you would see in other industries,” he says. He cites the aviation industry as an example from which the medical industry could take lessons.

According to the study, deaths caused by medical error account for just over 250,000 per year. That equates to nearly 700 deaths per day caused by negligence, or 9.5% of all deaths annually.

“When passengers get on a plane, there’s a standard way attendants move around, talk to them, and prepare them for flight,” Sands states, “yet such standardization isn’t seen at hospitals. That makes it tricky to figure out where errors are occurring and how to fix them. The government should work with institutions to try to find ways to improve on this situation.” Continuing with the aviation analogy, he discusses the ways in which everyone in the aviation industry learns from investigations into air safety and negligence as the results are public and disseminated widely across many channels. “When a plane crashes, we don’t say this is the confidential proprietary information the airline company owns. We consider this part of public safety. Hospitals should be held the the same standard.”

DDI has always been a proponent of finding means to reduce the overall incidence of medical error. By promoting risk-management education, we are able to help protect both our clients and their patients from potential medical errors. Our clients who are generally “safest” from claims of medical negligence are the ones who employ sound risk-management strategies and best practices, whether through training from their organization or the use of current technology. We are an insurance carrier after all, and at the end of the day, our goal is to protect our clients, and one of the best ways we can do that is by helping our clients keep their patients happy and healthy.