Our Medical Error Index

The past two decades have seen the problem of medical error come to light. Here is our version of the Harper’s Magazine Index applied to the problem of medical error:

Estimated number of deaths per year in the US hospital system attributable to medical error:
Number of jumbo jet crashes required per day for equivalent death rate:
Rank of medical errors among leading causes of death in the US:
Rank of medical errors among causes of death relative to motor vehicle accidents, diabetes, kidney disease, breast cancer, and influenza:
Percentage of anesthesiologists who, when surveyed anonymously, admitted to committing an error with fatal results:
Percentage of Americans who estimate that medical error causes fewer than 5,000 deaths annually:
Percentage of Americans who are “very concerned” that an error or mistake will lead to serious injury or harm when flying in a commercial aircraft:
Percentage of Americans who are “very concerned” that an error or mistake will lead to serious injury or harm when going to a hospital for care:
Percentage of Americans who believe they have personally experienced a medical error:
Estimated annual cost of medical error to US healthcare system:
$24 billion

(Sources: 1, 10 IOM To Err is Human, 3, 4 WrongDiagnosis.com, 6, 7, 8, 9Kaiser Health Poll Report 2003, 5 Anesthesiology, 63:A497, 1985)

Errors Attributable to Poor Device Design

Of course, not all errors involve medical devices or stem from poor device design. Errors take several forms, including:

Diagnostic Errors, such as misdiagnosis leading to an incorrect choice of therapy, failure to use an indicated diagnostic test, misinterpretation of test results, failure to act on abnormal results;
Treatment Errors, such as errors in the use of a drug, administering the wrong drug, adverse drug reactions, errors in administering to a patient, delay in treatment;
Preventative Errors, such as failures to provide an indicated prophylactic treatment, inadequate monitoring or follow-up of treatment;
Device Use-Errors, incorrect programming of a dosage, failure to respond to an alarm, misreading displayed information, data entry errors, inadvertent switch activation.

And while we at Human Factors MD are unaware of statistics on the frequency of device use-errors, it is clear that errors caused by poorly designed devices are a significant part of the medical error problem.