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Medical study says malpractice is 3rd-highest cause of death

Think medical malpractice isn’t a serious health crisis in this country? A bold new study from Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests it kills more people in the U.S. each year than just about every major disease. But you would not know it from the death certificates issued by negligent doctors.

According to NPR, the Johns Hopkins study estimates that more than 250,000 Americans are killed by medical malpractice each year. The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention lists just two things more deadly: heart disease and cancer, which took around 600,000 lives each in 2014. The difference, of course, is that medical mistakes are largely preventable.

But when a patient dies as the result of a medical professional’s error, the CDC only lists his or her “underlying cause of death,” which to the agency is the condition that caused the patient to seek treatment in the first place. The CDC does allow doctors to list medical errors on death certificates.

The Johns Hopkins researchers behind the study urges changes in death certificates to make it more clear when malpractice contributes to a patient’s death. In response, an official with the CDC defended his agency’s process, saying that adherence to international guidelines is necessary to accurately compare death statistics with other countries.

It would seem that mislabeling the cause of death would make the U.S. numbers less accurate, not more “consistent.” We will see if this study leads to a movement calling for more explicit reference to medical errors, when applicable.