Preventable Medical Errors

Preventable Medical Errors, Third Leading Cause of Death in America


My Dad was killed by a preventable medication error and poor hospital care.  There was no accountability, and the hospital never reported any adverse events that my Dad suffered at the hospital. Yet hospital-acquired conditions including adverse drug events and bedsores are required to be reported by state law. Our medical and legal system failed my Dad and my family miserably.  This was a wake up call for me that we must make our current medical system safer, otherwise we are all at risk of harm.

In its 2000 report, “To Error is Human, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) estimated that 98,000 people are killed each year because of preventable medical harm. The IOM declared that “it is simply not acceptable for patients to be harmed by the same health care system that is supposed to offer healing and comfort,” thereby setting a goal to reduce medical errors by 50% over five years.

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Also in the same year of 2000, Dr. Barbara Starfield showed grim statistics of US healthcare: 12,000 deaths from unnecessary surgeries; 7,000 deaths from medication errors in hospitals; 20,000 deaths from other errors in hospitals; 80,000 deaths from hospital-acquired infections; 106,000 deaths from prescribed medicines.  This brought the total annual deaths to 225,000, making medical care the third leading cause of death, right after heart disease (597,689) and cancer (574,743).

A more recent estimate by Dr. John James, a former NASA medical scientist and a patient safety advocate, has shown that the number of preventable deaths is actually much higher. When taking into account the hidden adverse events that are not documented in medical records, errors of omission, and diagnostic errors, Dr. James estimated that the number of deaths associated with preventable medical errors may be as many as 440,000 a year, which is over 1,000 people a day! This number is roughly one-sixth of all deaths in the United States each year.

It is extremely disturbing that patients’ deaths due to preventable medical harm are not being reduced. Instead, 15 years later, we are still stuck with the same third-leading cause of death by preventable medical errors. This harm has reached both epidemic and pandemic levels.

Starting out to make a difference, I and a number of concerned Washington State citizens formed a patient safety organization (Washington Advocates for Patient Safety). Our goal is to raise public awareness on quality of care and patient safety, with a mission to make healthcare more transparent and accountable for consumers and patients.  This month, I drafted a letter to over 200 Representatives and Senators who serve on Congressional health committees to ask them to set patient safety as a national priority to save more lives. I am honored to have Consumers Union and 33 other patient safety colleagues who are with Consumers Union patient safety network around country co-sign the Letter to Congress.  On July 10th, my Dad’s birthday, we mailed the letters to Representative Jim McDermott, Senator Patty Murray, and Senator Maria Cantwell.

Here is a news release from Consumers Union about this letter campaign and a copy of this Letter to Congress:

Also, last week the Senate HELP Subcommittee conducted a hearing — More Than 1,000 Preventable Deaths a Day Is Too Many: The Need to Improve Patient Safety. Both of my patient safety colleagues, John James, who co-signed our letter, and Lisa McGiffert, Director of Safe Patient Project, Consumers Union, testified before the HELP committee. Anyone who cares about patient safety should watch this hearing:

Washington Advocates for Patient Safety

Washington Advocates for Patient Safety

It is past time for a change.  We cannot keep doing the same thing and expecting our broken system to change.  How can it be that our medical system is the most expensive in the world, yet also one of the worse among modern countries?  We call on the public to please join our efforts to eliminate preventable medial errors and to make health care safe for all of us.  Write to your congress person and tell them we need real change and protection from preventable medical errors.

Yanling Yu, President
Washington Advocates for Patient Safety

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  • kathydayrn

    Yanling, thank you for this excellent blog about our recent efforts to step up healthcare harm reduction. Healthcare consumers must let their lawmakers know that we are not satisfied with the existing healthcare system in this country. 1000 preventable deaths per day is not acceptable. More mandates and public scrutiny of our nations several thousand hospitals is what it will take to stop the harm.