Better Reporting of Medical Errors Could Save Lives

Medical Error may be 3rd leading cause of death in the US

Medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, according to a recent study published by Drs. Makary and Daniel at Johns Hopkins University. It is estimated at least 251,454 Americans die due to medical errors every year. The study goes on to say that medical error leading to patient death is under-recognized in many other countries, including the UK and Canada. The failure of recognition seems to relate to how these deaths are recorded, or an inability of reporting systems to capture medical errors. For example, a death certificate may state cardiac arrest as a patient’s cause of death, but omit the medical mistake that led to the cardiac arrest.


The study authors urge greater awareness to create preventative measures, and say:

Although we cannot eliminate human error, we can better measure the problem to design safer systems mitigating its frequency, visibility, and consequences…Currently, deaths caused by errors are unmeasured and discussions about prevention occur in limited and confidential forums, such as a hospital’s internal root cause analysis committee or a department’s morbidity and mortality conference. These forums review only a fraction of detected adverse events and the lessons learnt are not disseminated beyond the institution or department.

Transparency about medical mistakes can save lives. “More appropriate recognition of the role of medical error in patient death could heighten awareness and guide both collaborations and capital investments in research and prevention,” the authors say.

Survey Summary Points

  • Death certificates in the US, used to compile national statistics, have no facility for acknowledging medical error
  • If medical error was a disease, it would rank as the third leading cause of death in the US
  • The system for measuring national vital statistics should be revised to facilitate better understanding of deaths due to medical care
Source: BMJ.com

As seen with past media coverage, lack of transparency about medical errors has also been a long-standing issue in this country. When a loved one dies or suffers from complications due to medical error, family members often don’t have access to information about the full circumstances behind the situation. Not only are these events emotionally devastating, they can also be financially crippling. Full accountability for medical mistakes is necessary for the system to be changed and improved, so that these events can be prevented in the future. Sometimes the only way to get access to that information is through the legal system.

Barbara MacFarlane
Written by

Barbara is a partner of Torkin Manes LLP Barristers & Solicitors and head of our Medical Malpractice and Personal Injury Groups, with a civil litigation practice focused on catastrophic injury and fatalities. Her cases include wrongful death, motor vehicle accidents, product liability, tavern liability and complex medical negligence cases. Barb is experienced Trial Counsel and has appeared as lead Appellate Counsel in the Ontario Court of Appeal. She regularly represents clients in the Superior Court, at Coroners’ Inquests and various administrative Tribunals. Barb has been involved in many complex litigation matters, including class actions.

Barb is Chair of the Women’s Trial Lawyers Caucus of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association.