Instances of medical malpractice may be more common than people think

In recent years, many studies have been published regarding the occurrence of medical mistakes in the U.S. Unfortunately, each time one of these studies is published, it seems as if the problem is worse than expected.

Recently, researchers at Patient Safety America, a patient advocacy organization based in Houston, published a study of hospital accidents in the Journal of Patient Safety. Their research found that between 210,000 and 440,000 patients in the U.S. are injured by preventable medical errors in U.S. hospitals each year. If the numbers presented by Patient Safety America are accurate, it would mean that medial errors are one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease and cancer.

John T. James, the study's author, examined previous studies indicating that serious adverse events occur in roughly 21 percent of hospitalizations and deadly adverse events occur in about 1.2 percent of hospitalizations. James combined these studies and used their data to estimate that approximately 210,000 deaths occurred as a result of errors in 2007, when there were about 34 million hospitalizations in the U.S.

In response to James' study, the American Hospital Association said that it believes the estimated number of annual deaths is high. It cites an earlier study by the Institute of Medicine finding that approximately 98,000 people in the U.S. die each year from medical mistakes. Other experts have said that the Patient Safety America numbers may be high, but that James' methodology is sound.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to come to a firm conclusion on which estimate is more likely to be true. Determining whether a patient's death was caused by a medical error can be difficult for a variety of reasons. First, not all medical records are accurate, which makes it impossible in some circumstances to prove conclusively that an error was responsible for a patient's injury. Second, many doctors and health care providers are hesitant to report instances of errors. Indeed, James and other authors have pointed out that systems relying on peer reporting of medical errors are notoriously unreliable.

Nevertheless, even if the Institute of Medicine's estimates are correct, the reality is that tens of thousands of people in the U.S. die each year because of medical errors. What is clear is that physicians and other health care professionals must increase their efforts to learn more about the causes and ways to prevent serious medical errors.