Our Blogs

Medical Errors are the Third-Leading Cause of Death in the US: Johns Hopkins University Study

Written by Berkowitz

Medical error written on a chalk board.

One of the most terrifying realities that most of us don’t want to think about is also one of the most obvious: Doctors are human, too. Like other humans, doctors make mistakes. Some of these mistakes are understandable, while more serious mistakes constitute professional negligence. And sometimes, these mistakes kill people. The question is, how often does that happen? A recent study by a reputable university reaches some shocking conclusions.

The Johns Hopkins Study

A 2016 Johns Hopkins longitudinal study that took place between 2000 and 2008 concluded that:

  • Over 250,000 deaths per year are caused by medical error in the US – or nearly one in ten deaths. Not one-tenth of hospital deaths, but one-tenth of all deaths.
  • Medical error is the third most common cause of death in the US, ahead of accidents and trailing only cancer and heart disease.
  • Medical errors are an underappreciated cause of death in the US.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks causes of death, the Johns Hopkins team criticized it for failing to include medical error as a separate category. If a doctor mistakenly prescribes a medication that causes his patient to die of heart failure, for example, the CDC will list the cause of death as “heart failure,” not “medical error.” The Johns Hopkins team asserts that including medical error as a separate category will reduce medical errors.

Currently, hospitals tabulate medical errors based on billing codes used primarily for insurance purposes. Critics assert that the system is designed to maximize the value of billing receipts, not to provide a basis for compiling accurate national health statistics such as causes of death. The consequence, say critics, is that initiatives designed to reduce medical errors receive insufficient funding because medical statistics fail to acknowledge their existence.


Some observers, including more than a few doctors, question the conclusion of the Johns Hopkins study, claiming that:

  • The Johns Hopkins researchers lumped medical errors together with unavoidable medical complications, resulting in an unrealistically high estimate for medical errors
  • The researchers didn’t properly consider whether the deaths they attribute to medical errors were actually preventable.
  • The researchers used a numerically small research base and then extrapolated the “250,000 deaths” figure based on the total number of hospital admissions in the US every year.

Ultimate Causes of Medical Errors

The Johns Hopkins researchers asserted that most medical errors aren’t caused by incompetent doctors but by systemic failures such as:

  • Badly coordinated care among various healthcare professionals and institutions;
  • Disconnected health insurance networks; and
  • Insufficient safety nets that allow one doctor to correct an error made by another doctor before it harms the patient.

The researcher recommended, in essence, that medical care become more standardized in order to both reduce the incidence of medical errors and lower the cost of healthcare.

Types of Medical Errors

A complete description of the various medical errors that have been made, or that could be made, would fill a library. Some of the most common categories of medical areas are listed below, however, along with examples.

Anesthesia Errors

Anesthesia errors are among the most dangerous types of medical errors, and they can result in brain damage, coma, or death. Some of the most common reasons for anesthesia errors include failing to thoroughly examine the patient’s medical history and failing to inform the patient of the possible consequences of, say, eating within a few hours before surgery.

Common anesthesia errors include administering too much anesthesia, using defective equipment (which could also result in a product liability claim), and failure to monitor vital signs, among others. In anesthesiology, there is very little room for error. Even a small mistake can have fatal consequences, which is why anesthesiologists must train for so long before they are qualified.

Surgical Errors

Surgical errors are common, although some types of errors are far more common than others. A clumsy surgeon might puncture an internal organ or a blood vessel, for example. Some of the most outrageous (and uncommon) errors that are committed include operating on the wrong body part, operating on the wrong patient, or leaving medical instruments inside the  patient’s body after he has been sewn up. Improper post-op care might also be classified as a surgical error.

Misdiagnosis (Including Delayed Diagnosis)

Misdiagnosis is a major category of medical error because it happens so often. A doctor will either fail to detect a patient’s dangerous condition, detect it much later than he should have, or fail to detect it until it unexpectedly kills the patient. Stage I of a certain kind of cancer, for example, might be reasonably easy to treat while Stage III might be impossible to treat effectively.

Medication Errors

A medication error can occur in many different ways, including:

  • A patient might be prescribed the wrong drug to treat a misdiagnosed condition.
  • A patient might be prescribed the wrong drug to treat an accurately diagnosed condition.
  • A doctor might fail to properly consider a drug’s interaction with other medications that a patient is taking.
  • The right drug might be given to the wrong patient.
  • Medication might be mislabeled.
  • The wrong dosage might be prescribed or administered.
  • A doctor’s bad handwriting or a typographical error might deceive a pharmacist into dispensing the wrong medicine or the wrong dosage.

Childbirth Errors

Medical errors relating to childbirth can be divided into two sub-categories: errors that occur during prenatal care, and errors that occur during childbirth. The consequences could affect the baby, the mother, or both. Examples include:

  • Failure to anticipate complications during childbirth, such as a breech birth or a tangled umbilical cord;
  • Failure to notice or respond to indications of fetal distress;
  • Failure to deliver by cesarean section (in certain cases);
  • Clumsy use of medical instruments such as forceps or vacuum extractor;
  • Failure to diagnose the mother’s prenatal medical condition, if it affects the baby (such as a contagious disease that could be passed onto the baby); and
  • Use of medical equipment that the doctor knows or has reason to believe is substandard (which also implicates product liability law).

Communication Errors

Strictly speaking, communication errors is not a separate category, because it overlaps with some of the other categories above (a doctor’s miscommunication with a pharmacist might result in a medication error, for example). Nevertheless, this semi-category is difficult to ignore because it explains so many medical errors. In fact, as a separate category, communication errors probably explain more patient deaths than all other categories combined.

Some examples of common communication errors include:

  • A patient experiences a sharp pain in the middle of the night. An overworked intern is notified of the crisis by a nurse, and the intern tells the nurse that the condition is “normal” and rolls over because he wants to go back to sleep. The nurse, trusting the intern’s judgment, fails to inform the doctor, resulting in the delayed diagnosis of a deadly and rapidly developing condition such as sepsis.
  • A patient receives medical care in a foreign country such as China, develops the same condition upon his return to the US, and the doctors do not (or cannot) obtain the patient’s medical records and have them translated into English, resulting in doctors “driving while blind” when treating the patient.
  • A doctor forgets to immediately update a patient’s medical records. Although he remembers during his lunch break, the one-hour gap in updating the patient’s records causes a medication error to occur while he is eating lunch, resulting in the death of the already fragile patient.

Filing a Claim in Connecticut

A claim arising from the death of a patient due to a medical error lies at the intersection of two different areas of personal injury law: medical malpractice law and wrongful death law.

  • Medical malpractice law compensates for medical negligence or other misconduct that results in harm to a patient, regardless of whether the patient dies as a result of the misconduct.
  • Wrongful death law compensates for the death of someone due to someone else’s misconduct, regardless of whether medical malpractice was involved.

As such, it is possible to file a wrongful death lawsuit based on medical malpractice.

Medical Malpractice

Not all medical errors rise to the level of medical malpractice. For a medical malpractice claim to be successful, the doctor’s conduct must have fallen below minimum professional standards, as determined by medical experts, and the misconduct must have harmed the patient. A “medical expert” can be another doctor, or it can be someone else with advanced medical knowledge and a proven track record.

Medical malpractice lawsuits are typically complex, require expert witnesses, and must be filed by the statute of limitations deadline (usually two or three years after the malpractice occurred, depending on the circumstances). To discourage frivolous lawsuits, Connecticut has also erect a procedural barrier to filing a medical malpractice lawsuit – known as the reasonable inquiry certification requirement.

Connecticut Wrongful Death Law

Under the Connecticut wrongful death statute, in the event of a wrongful death, the personal representative (executor) of the deceased victim’s probate estate can file a wrongful death lawsuit. The resulting compensation is added to the victim’s probate estate. These damages, of course, are eventually passed on to the beneficiaries of the victim’s will after the probate process has been completed. Wrongful death compensation can be very high.

It’s Time to Do Something

If someone you love has died for reasons that you suspect are related to a medical error, call Berkowitz Hanna today or simply contact us online for a free case evaluation. We charge our clients nothing unless we win their claim. After all, why should you pay for nothing? We’re not worried about it, because we win almost all of our cases.