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Medical errors: A culture of silence

When loved ones pass away, Massachusetts families deserve the truth about what happened in the hospital. Unfortunately, when the cause of death is a medical error, such as a mistaken diagnosis, doctors are likely to stay silent and lay the blame elsewhere.

Forbes reports that in U.S. hospitals, medical error falls just behind cancer and heart disease as a leading cause of death according to some researchers. In fact, anywhere between 44,000 and 400,000 deaths may result from medical error annually. 

These numbers are so discrepant because errors by healthcare staff are statistically difficult to pinpoint for several reasons:

  • Physicians may be unwilling or unable to identify error as a cause of death.
  • "Medical error" does not have an International Classification of Death code and, therefore, cannot be listed on the death certificate.
  • ICD codes and billing are closely related, which means that medical error is not billable.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not consider medical error as a cause of death.

A 2013 review of 25 years' worth of medical malpractice claims conducted for Johns Hopkins Medicine found that among doctor mistakes, diagnostic errors were the most common. This study found that at least 80,000 U.S. patients may fall victim to blunders in diagnosis that result in severe injuries or death, with approximately equal numbers for both outcomes. Researchers acknowledged that their estimation of the numbers of patients affected by such errors may be low because they included only the most extreme cases. 

Such errors have significant implications for patient safety. Like Forbes, Johns Hopkins Medicine emphasized that medical errors can be difficult to track and often go unreported. Physicians may be afraid to discuss these mistakes, which can be contribute to patient fatalities even when they are not a primary cause.

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