The Third Leading Cause of Death in the US Will Surprise You

Upset woman healthcare diagnosis

It won’t surprise you that heart disease and cancer are the top two leading causes of death in the US.

Number three, though, might shock you.

The third leading cause of death in the US is medical error, according to a study conducted by Johns Hopkins patient safety experts (original report released in May of 2016). The study places the number of deaths due to medical error at just over 250,000 per year. Dr. Martin Markary, M.D, M.P.H., led the study. Now, two years later, not much has changed.

According to a February 2018 CNBC article on the Johns Hopkins report:

“Dr. Markary defines a death due to medical error as one that is caused by inadequately skilled staff, error in judgment or care, a system defect or a preventable adverse effect. This includes computer breakdowns, mix-ups with the doses or types of medications administered to patients and surgical complications that go undiagnosed.”


Why haven’t we heard more about this?

Essentially, it comes down to how the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) collects and reports cause of death data. There are those (including Dr. Markary) who are urging the CDC to re-evaluate its collection and reporting methodology. But those wheels turn slowly. The CDC is a Federal Agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. So there’s that. But, that’s not the point.

What does this mean for you?

It means that you absolutely should be an engaged, informed, and proactive healthcare consumer.

Let’s be clear; no healthcare provider intends to do you harm. No doctor, nurse, technician or system is out to get you. Quite the opposite is true. But mistakes happen. Errors in judgement occur. Systems sometimes fail.

Savvy healthcare consumers – patients – pay attention, assume responsibility, and act on their own behalf. You are your most devoted advocate.

So, what should you do?

The short answer is everything you can. But, at the very least, be informed and ask questions.

Understand your prescribed medications. Ask your physician why a medicine is being prescribed. Ask how it will interact with other medicines you are taking (you have to know them or have an accurate record of them, right?). Ask about the risks or downsides. Ask if there is a natural remedy. Make sure your prescribing physician knows about any over the counter medication you are taking.

Fully understand your recommended surgeries, procedures, or treatment plans. Ask your physician why the procedure is necessary. Again, ask about the risks and downsides. What happens if you choose to not have the procedure?

Get a second opinion. When the potential downside of a prescribed medication or the potential downside of a recommended surgery, procedure, or treatment plan feels unsettling to you – get a second opinion. Maybe even a third. As a side note, if your physician attempts to discourage you or balks at the idea of a second opinion – you may need to change doctors.

Access your EHR / EMR via your patient portal (or other means available) and always check for accuracy. Check things as simple as the spelling of your name and your birthdate. Make sure that all lab and test results are reflected in your record. Inaccurate or missing information could be significantly problematic.

Use Google, Yelp, or any other resource at your disposal to research the people and places in your healthcare orbit. Read reviews carefully.

Expand your team. Who do you know – friends, family or otherwise – who can and will help you think things through? The thoughts of objective third parties are often helpful when seeking clarity or determining direction.

More succinctly, as we have been saying all along, develop a consumer mindset and take responsibility for your own healthcare decisions. You’re in charge.


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