Medical Error – [Still] the Third Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

by Elizabeth A. Kaveny

In 2016, Drs. Martin Makary and Michael Daniel published a study in the British Journal of Medicine indicating their findings that medical error is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States. At the time, Makary and Daniel called for a different way of identifying causes of death. Medical error was not identified as the cause of death when a death certificate was initiated nor was it included in the rankings of the cause(s) of death. When identifying a cause(s) of death, the methodology used was derived from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) code. The ICD does not have a code for human error or system failures. As a result, deaths caused by human error or system failure were not captured on certificates or rankings. The same is still true today in 2022.

The science of safety, however, has matured to describe how communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors, poor judgment and inadequate skills can directly result in patient harm and death. This system allows medical error to be placed as the third greatest cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer.

In their article, Makary and Daniel assessed medical error’s contribution to mortality and called for better reporting. Elizabeth Kaveny, President and Managing Partner of Kaveny + Kroll, a Chicago based medical malpractice firm, has long since demanded better and more accurate reporting of causes of death. “We simply cannot attribute medical error to another disease if the criteria does not fit and rather points in the direction of the health care provider or facility,” says Kaveny.

Medical error has been defined as an unintended act, either of omission or commission, or an act that does not achieve its intended outcome. It is also the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim. An error of planning or execution is a medical error of deviation from the process of care that may or may not cause harm to the patient. Medical error is as much an issue as a death caused by heart disease or cancer, but, yet does not equate in the same category.

Kaveny + Kroll has long been litigating and achieving settlements and verdicts in medical malpractice cases caused by medical error. “Whether the cause be sepsis, birth injury, diagnostic error or surgical, we fight for justice and compensation,” says Kaveny.  “We won’t rest until medical error takes its place in the methodology used for identifying causes of death.”