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Researchers estimate medical errors are third leading cause of death in the U.S.

Deaths caused by medical errors are difficult to track, and information about them should be shared more widely, the study’s authors say.

Medical errors are responsible for 251,000 deaths per year in the U.S.—more than respiratory disease, accidents, stroke or Alzheimer’s—according to calculations in a study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University. The research, published in the journal BMJ, synthesized four large studies conducted between 2000 and 2008 to estimate how many patient deaths occurred due to medical error.

The researchers embarked on the analysis in an attempt to find a more current total for U.S. medical error deaths than the 98,000 deaths estimated in a much-cited Institute of Medicine report from 1999.

Martin Makary, MD, one of the study’s authors and a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out that deaths due to medical error are difficult to track. In a Washington Post article on the study, Dr. Makary asserts that data about medical errors should be shared more widely: “When a plane crashes, we don’t say this is confidential proprietary information the airline company owns. We consider this part of public safety. Hospitals should be held to the same standards.”

To learn more, read the study in the BMJ or check out the Washington Post’s coverage of the research.

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