- A recent Johns Hopkins study claims more than 250,000 people in the U.S. die every year from medical errors. Other reports claim the numbers to be as high as 440,000.
- Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer.
- Advocates are fighting back, pushing for greater legislation for patient safety.
Emily Jerry was two years old when she lost her life after a pharmacy technician filled her intravenous bag with more than 20 times the recommended dose of sodium chloride.
Courtesy of Chris Jerry
“My little angel” is how Christopher Jerry describes his daughter Emily.
At just a year and a half, Emily was diagnosed with a massive abdominal tumor and endured numerous surgeries and rigorous chemotherapy before finally being declared cancer-free. But just to be sure, doctors encouraged Chris and his wife to continue with Emily’s last scheduled chemotherapy session, a three-day treatment that would begin on her second birthday.
On the morning of her final day of treatment, a pharmacy technician prepared the intravenous bag, filling it with more than 20 times the recommended dose of sodium chloride. Within hours Emily was on life support and declared brain dead.
Three days later she was gone.
Sadly, Emily’s case is not unique. According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins, more than 250,000 people in the United States die every year because of medical mistakes, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer.
Other studies report much higher figures, claiming the number of deaths from medical error to be as high as 440,000. The reason for the discrepancy is that physicians, funeral directors, coroners and medical examiners rarely note on death certificates the human errors and system failures involved. Yet death certificates are what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rely on to post statistics for deaths nationwide.
The authors of the Johns Hopkins study, led by Dr. Martin Makary of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, have appealed to the CDC to change the way in which it collects data from death certificates. To date, no changes have been made, Makary said.
‘The system is to blame’Makary 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.
“Currently the CDC uses a deaths collection system that only tallies causes of death occurring from diseases, morbid conditions, and injuries,” Makary stated in a letter urging the CDC to change the way it collects the nation’s vital health statistics.
“It’s the system more than the individuals that is to blame,” Makary said. The U.S. patient-care study, which was released in 2016, explored death-rate data for eight consecutive years. The researchers discovered that based on a total of 35,416,020 hospitalizations, there was a pooled incidence rate of 251,454 deaths per year — or about 9.5 percent of all deaths — that stemmed from medical error.
Now, two years later, Makary said he hasn’t seen the needle move much.
“Medical-care workers are dedicated, caring people,” said Chris Jerry, “but they’re human. And human beings make mistakes.” According to him, the day Emily was given her fatal dose, the hospital pharmacy was short-staffed, the pharmacy computer was not properly working, and there was a backlog of physician orders.
Afterward, Chris said he discovered that pharmacy technicians, rather than well-trained and educated pharmacists, are compounding nearly all of the IV medications for patients. And many states have no requirements, or proof of competency, for these pharmacy technicians.