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We’ve all seen the magazine cover lines, those teasers that tempt us while in line at the supermarket—the top health risks and how we can avoid them. Well, unlike some other “Top 10” lists that are based on little more than public opinion, the list of leading causes of death is actually based on hard data that’s continually being collected. Since 1950 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), the U.S. government has meticulously tracked and compiled data from state-issued certificates of marriages, births and deaths—including details on the cause of death.


Nearly 75% of all deaths in the U.S. can be attributed to one of ten causes

Data has shown that not only do most deaths in the U.S. fall under one of ten categories, but 50% of deaths occur within the top three. It should come as no surprise that heart disease is currently the leading cause of death, followed closely by cancer—each taking about 600,000 lives in 2014. The third most likely killer is chronic lower respiratory disease with 147,101 deaths—but, according to a new study by researchers at John Hopkins Medicine, this doesn’t account for more than 250,000 Americans that die each year from what is described as “medical errors.”


Why medical errors don’t make the list

Not everyone is familiar with the term, but “medical errors” are more common than most would think. Often the result of gross negligence or poor judgement, they are small mistakes that can bring about big problems or even death. In fact, some hospitals refer to them as “nevers”, because they should never have happened under any circumstances.

So why are such fatal faults not being recorded? Part of the problem lies with the system used by the CDC to capture information—there are no codes for a mix-up in medication or a communication breakdown between doctor and caregivers. Additionally, the CDC’s current process only asks for the “underlying cause of death”—so, while a patient might have died due to a botched coronary bypass, the death certificate would show heart disease.


What can be done to reduce the number of medical errors

While Dr. Eric Thomas, a professor of medicine at the University of Texas Houston Medical School and contributor to the Institute of Medicine’s landmark To Err Is Human report, points out that current evidence of medical errors might not support their ranking as the third most likely cause of death, he does acknowledge that a better way of collecting such data could lead toward future prevention. This concurs with the views of other researchers, who believe it’s not just about accurately reporting data—it’s a question of public health. If the general public better understood the true risk of medical errors, they would want to make caregivers more accountable, thus achieving a higher level of patient safety.

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