NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Deaths From Medical Errors May Have Been Overstated

July 25, 2001

Two years ago, a report from the Institute of Medicine ignited a major debate by stating that medical mistakes in hospitals kill up to 98,000 Americans a year. Now a new study, published in today's Journal of the American Medical Association, disputes that figure and places such deaths at 5,000 to 15,000 a year.

  • The most recent research -- led by Rodney A. Hayward of the Veterans Affairs Center for Practice Management and Outcomes Research in Ann Arbor -- faults the earlier study for too little consensus among the doctors consulted on what constitutes a deadly error.
  • The previous study identified such mistakes as prescription drug errors and misused or malfunctioning equipment.
  • Hayward says his researchers found widely varying opinions among doctors on whether an error directly led to death -- and even on what constituted an error.
  • The Ann Arbor team estimated that only 0.5 percent of patients they studied would have lived at least three months in good health if care had been optimal.

But Lucian L. Leape of the Harvard School of Public Health, co-author of the Institute of Medicine report, defends his findings and says that Hayward's conclusions were based on too small a sample of patients and were derived by way of "statistical torturing."

The issue is an important one since, in the wake of the first report, hospitals nationwide instituted new protections -- such as new computer programs -- to catch errors.

Source: Associated Press, "Medical-Error Reports in Dispute," Washington Times, July 25, 2001; based on Rodney A. Hayward and Timothy P. Hofer, "Estimating Hospital Deaths Due to Medical Errors: Preventability Is in the Eye of the Reviewer," Journal of the American Medical Association, July 25, 2001.


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