Medical Error Is Not The ‘Third Leading’ Cause Of Deaths
The problematic science behind a commonly-quoted statistic
There’s an incredibly common claim splashed around whenever we talk about the mistakes that get made in medicine — that medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States. It is so ubiquitous that you can find it quoted in TV dramas, thrown around in news stories, and constantly referred to on Twitter every time anyone wants to make a point about how bad the healthcare system is.
And it’s quite a persuasive argument for several reasons. Everyone agrees that the medical establishment sometimes harms people — indeed, there are countless horrifying tales of doctors causing harm, especially to women, and particularly disadvantaged women. Moreover, almost everyone you speak to with a chronic health condition will be able to tell you at least one story about how a doctor, nurse, or other clinician did something that may have harmed their health.
Taking that into account, it sounds entirely reasonable that medical error might be a huge problem, and if you don’t know how leading causes of death are calculated, the statistic itself doesn’t sound totally ridiculous.
Fortunately for all of us, however, the truth is far less worrisome. Yes, medical error is a problem, but it definitely isn’t the third leading cause of death. It probably isn’t even in the top 15.
The scientific rationale for the argument about medical error comes from a 2016 commentary piece in the august British Medical Journal (BMJ). In this paper, the two authors aggregated together a number of studies that looked at deaths potentially related to medical mistakes, worked out the average rate of such issues in the four studies that they found, and applied this to hospitalization statistics in the U.S.
With about 35 million hospitalizations in the U.S. in 2013, and a rate of 71 deaths per 10,000 hospitalizations related to…