Medical Errors: The 3rd Leading Cause of Death

While any cause of death is unfortunate, some are more easily preventable than others. The top two leading causes of death in the U.S. are heart disease and cancer.

Shockingly, a recent analysis has conveyed that the third leading cause of death in the U.S is among those that is reversible and highly unrecognized. So you’re wondering what it is? Read on!

First we’ll give you the good news—it’s a cause that we can do something about! The bad news is that this preventable factor is being blamed on an estimated 251,454 hospital deaths per year in the U.S. According to a recent analysis appearing on May 3, 2016 in The BMJ, the third leading cause of death is medical error.

Why Medical Error Deaths Go Unnoticed

Death certificates in the U.S. have no provision for medical error due to the lack of an International Classification of Disease (ICD) code used by the U.S. and 116 other countries. In other words, there’s nowhere for it to be officially documented!

A commonly cited report from 1999 estimates that there are 44,000 to 98,000 annual U.S. deaths due to medical error. However, these data are limited and outdated.1

Using studies dating back to the same year, researchers calculated an average number of hospital deaths due to medical errors of 251,454 people in 2013. This figure greatly underestimates the true number of lives lost to medical errors due to the limitation of available data that is documented in health records (along with the exclusion of outpatients).

How Medical Errors Compare to Other Causes of Death

The calculated medical error deaths of 251,454 is lower than the 611,000 heart disease deaths and the 585,000 deaths attributable to cancer. However, mortality due to medical errors is significantly higher than that of the next most common cause, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), at an estimated 149,000 deaths per year.

Another startling statistic is that deaths from motor vehicle accidents, which averaged 34,000 in 2013, were just about 14% of the number of deaths caused by medical error…but we’re so thorough about the safety our vehicles. Why aren’t we just as (or more) cautious of how our bodies are being cared for?

The Common Types of Medical Errors

Researchers define medical errors as unintended actions of commission or omission; acts that fail to achieve their intended outcome; errors in carrying out an intended action; use of wrong plans to achieve goals; and deviations from the process of care.

They note that harm from medical error can occur at an individual or at a system level.

How To Prevent Medical Errors

The authors of the current analysis point out three strategies for decreasing the rate of medical errors:

  1. Make errors more visible so that their effects can be intercepted. This requires increased review of adverse events, accompanied by communication of information between departments.
  2. Have remedies readily at hand to prevent or treat the consequences of medical errors.
  3. Follow principles that take human limitations into account in order to reduce error frequency.
Researchers recommend that death certificates contain a field in which complications related to care that contributed to the patient’s death can be entered.

Another potential strategy is to instill routine investigations to determine what the main contributors to medical error deaths are. This way the areas that may be lacking can be appropriately addressed to be brought back up to par (and kept there with follow-up investigations).

The Bottom Line

The unsettling issue of medical errors shouldn’t remain hidden. Giving more recognition to the role of medical error in patient death can lead to heightened awareness, increased preventative action, and ultimately save millions of lives!


  1. The BMJ, 2016;353:i2139.


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