Slate’s Law Blog

Are Medical Errors Really the Third Leading Cause of Death?

Are Medical Errors Really the Third Leading Cause of Death?

Studies routinely report that medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the United States. For example, in 2016, Johns Hopkins Medicine said that “patient safety experts have calculated that more than 250,000 deaths per year are due to medical error in the U.S..” That data comes from a study published during the same year in the BMJ. In that study, Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, explained that data has not always been collected in a streamlined way. More specifically, “incidence rates for deaths directly attributable to medical care gone awry have not been recognized in any standard method for collecting national statistics.” Further, as Dr. Makary explained, the “medical coding system was designed to maximize billing for physician services, not to collect national health statistics, as it is currently being used.”

Yet recent studies suggest that medical errors might not actually be the third leading cause of death in the United States. Articles from the McGill Office for Science and Safety and suggest that medical mistakes may not be quite as prevalent as other studies have suggested. Our Santa Fe medical malpractice attorneys can say more.

Older Studies Addressing Medical Error Deaths

According to the article in, the idea that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States originated from a study published back in the summer of 2000 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The author, Barbara Starfield, gathered data on deaths among patients and reported that approximately 225,000 deaths occur annually due to medical errors in hospital settings and due to medication mistakes in various circumstances. The study attributed more than 100,000 patient fatalities to medication errors and adverse medication effects. About 80,000 deaths were tied to hospital-acquired infections. Other types of medical errors cited included surgical errors, and medication errors specifically made in hospital settings. 

The BMJ article further reported that medical mistakes were the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., reporting that about 250,000 patient deaths every year resulted from medical mistakes. Yet the data analyzed for that study came from multiple different sources, and as the McGill article underscores, the study has been criticized for a range of flaws in the analysis. That article also points out that “more recent studies have looked at the phenomenon and the numbers that have emerged are a far cry” from those identified previously. Accordingly, medical errors may not be to blame for so many patient deaths.

Medical Errors Do Occur

Even if commonly cited studies attribute more deaths to medical errors than actually occur, it is important to remember that medical mistakes do happen, and they do cause harm to patients. Healthcare providers have a duty to provide reasonable care to patients. When they fail to do so, the patient can be injured and may be eligible to file a medical malpractice claim.

While the duty to avoid a medical error caused by negligence is a duty of the health care provider, patients should also know that they can take steps to help reduce the likelihood of a mistake that can be harmful. For example, patients can ask questions and can clarify concerns with doctors to ensure that they are receiving the correct medication, the correct surgical procedure, and the correct treatment.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney in Santa Fe

If you or someone you love was harmed by a medical error, you should get in touch with a Santa Fe medical malpractice lawyer to find out about filing a claim. Contact Slate Stern Law today.