Medical Errors: The Third Leading Cause of Death in the US

Do you think that the healthcare you’re paying for is two to three times more expensive than what the rest of the world pays because it’s the best the best in the world?  If so, you may want to check your assumption.

A story covered by the Washington PostNPR, Time Magazine, and others titled “Medical Errors are the No. 3 Cause of US Deaths” reports that researchers at Johns Hopkins estimate that more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors.   That ranks medical errors just behind heart disease and cancer.  As Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the research, put it, “It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care.”  We could not state it any plainer.

Please take a minute to read one or more of the three stories. (Each covers the issue slightly differently.)  And after you do, consider this: we’ve known medical errors in American medicine cost a significant number of lives and a substantial sum of money since at least 1999 when an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report  titled “To Err is Human” labeled preventable medical errors an “epidemic” and estimated they resulted in 98,000 preventable deaths per year.  (The National Quality Forum – a not-for-profit, nonpartisan organization working to catalyze healthcare improvements –  quickly took that last number to task and said it was well over 200,000 deaths per year.)

But let’s be completely blunt – because we must not beat around the bush when it comes to 250,000 avoidable deaths each year – and point out what neither Time, the Post, or NPR do: If you’re an employer who provides healthcare coverage for your employers, then this is what you’re funding.  This is what you’re encouraging by purchasing care the way you do.  Since, as Dr Don Berwick said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get exactly the results it’s getting,” then you are getting exacting what you’re paying for.  And all the discounts and “narrow networks” in the world doesn’t change the fact that 250,000 people a year are dying avoidable deaths because the major purchasers of care – employers and the government – aren’t demanding better.

Since 1996 – three years before the seminal “To Errr is Human” report was released – the Colorado Business Group on Health has advocated for purchasing healthcare on quality, not cost; on outcomes, not discounts; on value, not volume.  And since 1996, we’ve promoted that only employers can change the outcomes of the US health system, but that no employer can do it alone.  Employers MUST act together by insisting on common, evidence-based standards for measuring and managing health care.  If you do not, no one else will and 25 years from now we’ll still be talking about hundreds of thousands of deaths per year resulting from medical errors. But if you do, together we can cause major improvements.

If you are a member of CBGH, please insist that CBGH sponsored tools such as Leapfrog,  Comparion Medical AnalyticseValue8, and Bridges to Excellence are used – both in purchasing care and providing benefits.  If you are not a member of CBGH, please join us.  We need you. And more to the point, we can help you.

Your employees and your families deserve better.