How many die due to doctors' errors?

Sadly, the transplant girl is dead. Just how common is her fate? I don’t mean the exact circumstances, of course, but how many Americans die each year due to physicians’ errors?

Please note, I’m making a distinction between “errors” and “general sloppiness.” Recent reports suggest that many serious infections result from lack of proper handwashing. That’s not what I have in mind.

Another example: Boston Globe health writer Betsy Lehman died about 6-8 years ago after getting ten-times the proper dose of a chemotherepy drug, with the M.D. making the initial mistake, but the pharmacist and the nurse who administered the drug missing their chances to catch the error. We know about that one because Betsy Lehman was well known, at least in Boston. But how many ordinary people suffer similar fates without drawing any attention?

My girlfriend is a nurse and she says, I don’t know if she’s joking but she always sounds quite serious, that the most people in the UK die in August. The reason for that is that is the time when all the new doctors qualify and they all make mistakes.

You know what they say about doctors. They bury all their mistakes.


I can’t find a cite but a few months ago I read and it was reported on the TV news that hospital mistakes resulting in death was higher than that of deaths caused by drunk drivers in a given year.

I wish I had exact stats on it but I can’t find it. But I remember being appauled by the number I just don’t recall the amount. It just seemed strange to me that more deaths were caused by hospital mistakes than drunk drivers.

If I am wrong, I apologize and my mind could be playing tricks. I am a good Google searcher but on this kind of stuff, it throws me for a loop.

Okay my months tend to go into years. :wink: Of course there may have been an updated study.

And those figures were quickly retracted, and reduced by about 90% IIRC.

Blatant errors like the “oops oh shit” stuff at Duke happen infrequently, but when they do, they get attention. And there are just such a large number of medical procedures being done, that even if they happen only in one case out of 100,000 they will occur weekly.

We can and must minimize the chance of error as much as possible, but having directly overseen and reviewed critical processes repeatedly in my career, damn it’s a hard job. When people are involved, errors will be made. When more people are added to it, more errors occur. And if there is high turnover in the people involved, the error rate goes up tremendously.

according to JAMA, the most prestigious medical journal in the world - doctors are the number 3 cause of death in USA.

I don’t consider JAMA to be the most prestigious journal, YMMV.

Doctors and other health care workers make lots of mistakes – misdiagnosis, improper treatment, drug-drug reactions, incorrect drug dose, technical error during a procedure… all are pretty common. Busy people doing complex work will make mistakes, it would be unreasonable to expect perfection.

The more difficult and complex a case, the easier it is to make a mistake. I have made very few, so far, none fatal to my knowledge, but no doubt it’s a matter of time.

With all due respect to the doctors on this board…I think the OP is looking for statistics, not that the job is difficult.

Everyone has a difficult job to some degree but the OP wants to know the stats to how many actually die due to medical mistakes. A legitimate question I think. It is important to our health care as a whole. If people really knew the amount of deaths because of mistakes, there may be some ways to ward off those deaths.

We are human, yes, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to work towards a better solution to even things like health care with fewer potentials for death or serious injury.

Since the topic came up, doctors can’t really be 100%, that’s cool, I understand that but I also have more faith in attorneys than I do doctors based on my past. But hey that’s a different topic altogether. I would date an attorney over a doctor any day.

< just being a little cynical. >

Doctors vs Handguns

The number of physicians in the US: 700,000
Accidental deaths caused by physicians per year: 120,000
Accidental deaths per physicians: 0.171
Statistics from: - U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services -

Number of gun owners in the US: 80,000,000
Number of accidental gun deaths per year (all age groups): 1,500
Accidental deaths per gun owner: 0.0000188

Statistically, doctors are approximately 9,000 times more dangerous than gun owners.

Who saves more lives per year, physicians or handgun owners? What’s the numbers on accidental deaths per year for diagnostic procedures performed using guns? Ballistic cancer treatments? Target surgery?


I’d argue that guns save more lives per year by stopping murderers in their tracks, killing terrorists, and thwarting dictators worldwide.

Lies, damn lies and statistics…

Then throw in the number of intentional deaths by guns. O_o

You’re comparing hugely varied things.

They call me “Doctor Love,” and I’ve never killed anyone.

OK, so they don’t actually call me that.

ouch, touche! You make an excellent point.

I think one must be carefull with these statistics especially, due to a number of factors: is the death attributal to an MD error or due to the natural variation in disease, equipment failure, nurse error, unavailable resources, poor patient compliance, etc.

One must also ask if the data was collected by an insurance group with some business agenda to prove.

Actual MD error causing death, I believe, is rare, and when it does happen then it’s due to gross neglect of scientific method in diagnosis and treatment or to pure human error.

Please be advised that this topic is about doctors (or the medical industry generally) and that there is a factual question on the table.

The very next person to mention guns in this thread, unless said gun is being wielded by a physician during a medical procedure, will be banned from this message board. There’s plenty of gun threads.

[post removed]

I’m going to assume that David Simmons was composing that post as I was posting and didn’t check preview.

That’s why I merely redacted it in its entirety.

I think that people are using “medical mistake” in several different ways.

First there is gross error that caused three deaths at Duke (one, the patient; two, the person who should have got the first heart that she got; third, the person who would otherwise have got the <i>second</i> heart she got). Ok, there is some double counting there, but anyway the mistake caused two deaths. I suspect that, while the medical profession is far from perfect, this kind of error is rare.

The second kind is what might be called the error of hubris. The doctor gets it in his mind that the patient suffers from X when the actual condition is Y and treats X and the patient dies of Y. Or suffers serious injury. This is the statistic that I would really like to know since it tells you how important it is to get a second opinion. And this, like the first kind, is subject to amelioration. But unlike the first kind, it is probably much more common than we know. Given doctor’s god-complex, it is hard to convince them that they may be wrong (not all doctors, but all too many).

Finally, there is a third category of the doctor who didn’t do every possible test and thereby missed something. This is the most complicated and difficult area of all, since there are valid reasons for not doing every possible test. Tests cost money and while we might not like to admit it, money does matter since money spent here cannot be spent there. Just as a heart transplanted here cannot be transplanted there. Tests are often invasive, often unpleasant, sometimes carry a not infignificant risk in themselves (I believe I have read that an angiogram, just a diagnostic procedure, has a 1% chance of death). And many tests simply give far too many false positives that lead to really expensive and dangerous followups.

Here is a thought experiment on the latter point. Suppose there is a condition that is so rare that only one person in a million suffers from it. Suppose there is a screening test that never has a false negative, but has 1% false positives. If you screen 1,000,001 people, you will get 10,001 positive responses (expected value) of which 10,000 are false and one true. That is 10,001 patients on whom, let us suppose, expensive and possibly dangerous followups are now required. Let us imagine that 2 of those 10,001 people die as a result of the further tests. You now have killed two people and spent untold amounts of money to save one life. On the other hand, if you don’t perform that screening, then some high priced lawyer can find some doctor somewhere who can be paid to testify that the screening test should have been administered that would have saved his client’s life.

There, and I haven’t ever mentioned g__s.