The Institute of Medicine famously published a report in 1999 that estimated medical errors were responsible for as many as 98,000 deaths each year in America. This report was viewed with equal parts alarm and skepticism.
However, a new report from Johns Hopkins University, as reported by Bloomberg, claims that medical errors trail only heart disease and cancer among the leading killers in our country, claiming approximately 251,000 victims each year. This report combines data from four separate studies that examined deaths in hospitals, outpatient surgery centers, nursing homes and other healthcare environments. Researchers suggest the estimate may be conservative.
Critics of studies that attempt to measure medical errors point out that “medical error” is not a term with a standard definition. A medical error could include everything from the wrong diagnosis to an administrative error, which could lead to any number of mistakes.Think about the different kinds of mistakes that could theoretically fall under the umbrella of medical errors. These could include improper diagnosis, prescribing or administering incorrect medication, misreading a patient’s chart, misinterpreting diagnostic images, or entering patient data incorrectly.
Does it also include negligence? Does it include hospital-acquired infections?
A standard definition that clarifies what constitutes a medical error and puts it in proper context would help us better understand the seriousness of the problem. More importantly, it would help us come up with a solution.
But what can we do as healthcare consumers to reduce the risk of medical errors?
I highly recommend documenting your medical history. How many times have you been asked questions about your medical history and wondered if your answers were completely accurate?
Instead of answering these questions on the fly, put it in writing. You can go online and find dozens of medical history templates. Make your medical history a living document that you carry around with you on your smartphone or tablet. You can then update and refer to the document should the need arise.
Unfortunately, many medical errors are beyond our control. They can be traced back to a broken healthcare system that continues to focus on reactive treatment of illness rather than proactive prevention of illness. If any business failed as miserably as our healthcare system while allowing costs to skyrocket, everyone would be up in arms.
When it comes right down to it, the best way to avoid medical errors – and drive down healthcare costs – is to use our healthcare system less frequently. Through preventative care and a commitment to a wellness lifestyle, we can spend less time in the doctor’s office, reduce our dependence on medication, and minimize the risk of chronic illness. If the high cost of healthcare and the shockingly high number of medical errors don’t convince us to change our lifestyles, I don’t know what will.