A recent article published in the BMJ has caused a furor in the medical community claiming that medical error is the third leading cause of death in the US. In the article Sensationalization of Medical Errors: Breaking Down the Data In Order to Improve Patient, the author makes a careful analysis of the data used to come to these conclusions. The methodology of the data collection makes the claims of the study grossly overstated, but does deliver an important message to the medical-industrial complex.
Wikipedia states a medical error is an error that is a preventable adverse effect of care, whether or not it is evident or harmful to the patient. This might include an inaccurate or incomplete diagnosis or treatment of a disease, injury, syndrome, behavior, infection, or other ailment.
This is where the complications arise. Medical errors are and can be dangerously detrimental to certain patients but whether this is a cause and effect relationship can be very difficult to prove. Medical errors are contributory factors.
Medical errors run the gamut of poor communication, failure to diagnose in a timely manner (a complicated legal question), improper medications, not accessing the right data at the right time (a failure of interoperability of the modern Electronic Health Records, multiple intellectual and emotional biases of the providers, system errors (most common) and etc.
Whether a medical error directly cause a death, was contributory to what degree, and/or irrelevant would have to be carefully ascertained on a case by case basis. Making generalizations on death certificates where the data is frequently incorrect leads to suspect conclusions.
The bottom line is that the medical community should take this article as a warning shot that there are significant problems in the system. Crying foul is not a solution. Moreover, the use of the word “cause” with respect to medical error is totally inappropriate. We well know, too well, that “proximate cause” without significant other “contributory” factors, is necessary in a tort case. It is no different here. When the disease is the underlying etiology, and the healthcare system does its best, but fails, as it naturally does now and then, what is the underlying cause?
Certainly minimizing what are termed “errors,” but should more properly be termed “imprecisions” or “flaws” is a goal to which all strive. But as imperfect beings, subject to many flaws, a perfect medical world is not going to happen. Preventable means zero margin for the humanity under which we all labor. All we can do is our best to keep the imperfections minimized.
Fixing the present Electronic Health Record Systems to give accurate, clinically specific data would go a long way in solving some of the problems. Artificial intelligence giving specific warnings would give the provider an immediate second opinion that may help guide the proper course. Finally society has to come with grips that medical art and science is not perfect and never will be.