Should You Avoid Medical Errors to Live Longer?

Should You Avoid Doctors to Live Longer?
Should You Avoid Doctors to Live Longer?

A widely reported study claims that medical errors are the 3rd leading cause of death. But dig a bit deeper and you find a lot of question marks.

Too often, headlines overstate the actual story. Last week, a particular medical study was published and most news outlets jumped all over it.

“Researchers: Medical Errors Now 3rd Leading Cause of Death in United States” was one of the many headlines this past week reporting on a review published in BMJ (British Medical Journal). By my casual review, it was probably the most covered medical news of the week. It was in all the major newspapers, TV news, and all over the Internet. Is it possible that doctors are bad for your health?

Medical error is hardly ever cited as the cause of death. In real life, a medical error or oversight or misdiagnosis might, for example, lead to a patient’s cancer not being treated correctly, potentially leading to death. This study would have counted that death as a medical error, which it was. But there is no way of knowing that if cared for properly, that person might have died of cancer anyway.

Even more troubling, the study drew conclusions based on 3 small studies from 2009 or before, each using different methods of calculating medical errors. The total number of preventable deaths in these studies were 35. Then the author of this review multiplied them against the total universe of patients to estimate 250,000 deaths in the US. That’s a lot of multiplying. Small sample sizes projected onto a large universe can be subject to highly distorted conclusions. I hope, and believe, that this is one of those times. (The source for much of the analysis of the study was Health News Review.)

Doctors aren’t butchers and medicine is an uncertain science. Most doctors are ethical enough that they would be the first ones questioning and changing the care system if errors were as rampant as this implies. That’s not to say that errors don’t happen. They do and they should be reviewed, studied and learned from so they can be avoided in patients.

The bottom line: Question scary headlines.