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Tips for reporting on deaths from medical errors

May 10, 2016

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Medical errors in hospitals and health care facilities may now be the third leading cause of death in the U.S. That figure sits just behind heart disease and cancer, according to a new analysis by patient safety researchers. The report was published in weekly peer-reviewed medical journal, The BMJ.

Each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes an annual list of the most common causes of death. The list, created using death certificates from physicians, funeral directors, medical examiners and coroners, relies on assigning each death an International Classification of Disease classification. However, that system doesn’t capture deaths better attributed to communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors, poor judgment, inadequate skills and other medical errors that can accelerate (or cause) a patient’s death, according to the BMJ study.

The BMJ study involved a comprehensive analysis of four large studies on deaths attributable to medical error, including ones by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of the Inspector General and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality that took place between 2000 to 2008. The analysis found experts could attribute 251,000 deaths, or nearly 700 deaths a day, to medical errors. That’s about 9.5 percent of all deaths in the U.S. each year.

What we can learn from medical errors

As reporters we can learn a lot from individual cases. A young woman cited in the study recovered after a successful transplant operation. However, the hospital readmitted her after the young woman complained about not feeling well. Tests, including an invasive test in which a needle and catheter removed fluid from around her heart to check for infection and inflammation, couldn’t find anything wrong. Less than a few days later she was again readmitted with an abdominal hemorrhage and cardiac arrest. Later, an autopsy revealed that the needle inserted while collecting fluid from around her heart had grazed her liver, causing an aneurysm that resulted in rupture and death. Officials coded her death as cardiovascular.

The story highlights how federal requirements fail to track deaths due to medical errors. In addition to messy federal requirements for reporting on medical deaths, many states don’t require hospitals and health care professionals to report medical errors. That leaves the topic ripe for reporters who want to dig into how officials report medical errors at the state level. Does your state require health care professionals to report medical errors? If so, what state agency collects the data? How is the data organized and compiled? Is the data public record? If so, enterprising reporters could use the figures as fodder for the growing prevalence of medical errors in their state.

Story ideas from medical errors

If your state doesn’t require health care professionals to report medical errors, another great story angle surfaces. Why not? What other records could reporters collect from state data agencies to track medical errors?

Kaiser Health News found medication mistakes alone are a major patient safety and public health issue. A Kaiser Health News analysis of inspection notices showed that “between January 2010 and July 2015, inspectors identified 3,016 home health agencies — nearly a quarter of all those examined by Medicare — that had inadequately reviewed or tracked medications for new patients. In some cases, nurses failed to realize that patients were dangerously combining drugs, risking abnormal heart rhythms, bleeding, kidney damage and seizures.”

Jordan Rau of Kaiser Health News reported on deaths that commonly occur when patients leave the hospital. In one case, a patient developed sores in her mouth and throat, and blood began seeping from her nose and bowels two weeks after a hospital discharge. The home health care agency had mistakenly substituted a drug to keep the patient from retaining fluid with a toxic drug with a similar name, but a completely different purpose: to treat cancer and severe arthritis. The patient died several weeks later of multiple organ failure.

The following areas provide good starting points for reporters to dig into medical errors:

  • state court records
  • autopsy reports
  • physician state board records and sanctions
  • hospital discharge claims given to state agencies
  • research and analysis from medical insurance carriers


  • Jennifer Backer

    Jennifer is a business writer and news junkie who has written about everything from copper mining to soaring cotton prices. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg News, The Arizona Republic, The St. Louis Business Journal, and The Seattle Times, among ma...

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