Medical errors are not the third leading cause of death

I read it again this week, and I wonder why the editors of our medical journals continue to perpetuating this falsehood. An article in a prominent journal stated again that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. We all know this is not the case, and yet editors continue to let this be stated in their journals as if it were fact.

Ever since the offending article was published last year making this ridiculous claim, other authors have perpetuated it as if it were true. Yet it is painfully obvious to every practicing physician that it is not true. The top ten causes of death, according to the national center for health statistics, are the following:

  • heart disease
  • cancer
  • chronic lower respiratory diseases
  • accidents (unintentional injuries)
  • stroke (cerebrovascular diseases)
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • diabetes
  • influenza and pneumonia
  • nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis
  • intentional self-harm (suicide)

When I see this list, I realize that I have witnessed many deaths in each of these categories over my career.  If I had never seen the list and someone told me that strokes were the third leading cause of death, I would think it was a reasonable answer. I have seen many patients die from strokes so it would be reasonable to assume it would hold that position on the list or somewhere close to that spot.

If on the other hand, you told me the third most common cause of death is being implied by a lawn dart, I would question that statement since I have never seen a patient die from that cause. If it was the third leading cause, then I should have seen a lot of these patients during my career.

I am not a bird expert, so don’t know what the top ten most common birds are in the United States. If you told me it was a robin, or a sparrow, or a mallard I would have no reason to question that statement as I have seen so many of these birds, it makes sense that any of them could rank third, even though I don’t know the actual ranking. Common sense tells me it is possible.

If you tell me the third most common bird in the United States is a flamingo, I would question that statement since the only place I have ever seen a flamingo in the wild was in southern Florida so it couldn’t possibly be the third most common bird.

That is why I know the third most common cause of death is not medical errors. It doesn’t take a study to know this is an incorrect statement. During my career I have not seen enough people die from medical errors to use up all the fingers on one hand. Therefore, it is not possible for that cause to rank as high as third and displace all those other causes on the list that I know are common.

How can editors of prominent medical journals with good conscience continue to let this absurd statement run through the literature? Every time it is printed, it gives the statement more credibility. This is an incorrect statement that is causing harm, and our own journals are making it worse. Patients are worried about medical errors causing their death. Congressmen are worried. Since this statement keeps getting made as if it were fact, the issue is getting worse, not going away.

Extrapolations should not be put forward as if they are facts. They are not. Patients should not be scared by false statements, they have enough to worry about already.

We saw how misinformation could harm the public when a journal published an article about vaccines causing autism. Even after that was proved to be false, the damage could not be undone, and many people suffered because of that error.

Flamingos are not the third most common bird in the United States, and medical errors are not the third most common cause of death either. No editor should accept an article that perpetuates this claim. Stand up to media nonsense and help your patients learn the truth. Give feedback to your journals so they know you do not appreciate them perpetuating this nonsense. It’s time to put an end to the idea that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States or anywhere else. The very statement inappropriately undermines the credibility of physicians everywhere.

Cory Fawcett is a general surgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Cory S. Fawcett.  He is the author of The Doctors Guide to Starting Your Practice Right.

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