Imagine wiping out the entire population of Orlando, Fla., each year. That's essentially what medical errors are doing, according to an analysis of four studies on the topic that was published in the BMJ on Tuesday. It finds that about 9.5% of Americans who die each year are killed by a medical error, making it the No. 3 cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. Combine all annual deaths from guns, suicide, and car accidents, double them, and that still wouldn't add up to the 251,454 people the Johns Hopkins researchers estimate fall victim to medical errors each year. And that number may be underplaying things. "We believe this understates the true incidence of death due to medical error because the studies cited rely on errors extractable in documented health records and include only inpatient deaths," reads the study.
Those records are hampered by the way we report medical errors: poorly. The CDC doesn't track these, and the New York Times notes it is not a cause of death that would appear on a death certificate. (The researchers would like to see a "preventable complication" field added to death certificates.) The study notes that "the most commonly cited estimate of annual deaths from medical error" is a 1999 Institute of Medicine report that put the ceiling at 98,000 deaths, and the head of health care quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center tells the Washington Post that what's happened in the 17 years since that report is "discouraging and alarming": Basically, there has been no improvement, with the exception of hospital-acquired infections. (Read more medical errors stories.)