Studies: Doctor errors, not system flaws, cause most deaths

Since 1999, hospitals throughout the United States have made well-intentioned efforts to adopt systems meant to prevent hospital errors. However, studies have shown that the widespread use of systematized medicine, by which hospitals use checklists to follow established protocol, has not significantly reduced the number of preventable hospital deaths. In fact, it is estimated that at least 100,000 patients die each year as a result of medical errors.

So what can doctors, nurses and hospitals do to better protect the safety of patients?

According to research from Baylor College of Medicine, the majority of failures to diagnose did not result from system errors and instead resulted from human errors. For example, doctors ordered the wrong tests, failed to properly check patient histories, and failed to properly examine patients.

A University of South Florida study came to similar conclusions with regard to surgical procedures. The 2008 study, which examined medical records for 10,000 patients, indicated that 96 percent of surgical complications resulted from human errors. Only 4 percent of these problems were attributed to system flaws. 

According to statistics from the National Practitioner Data Bank, over the span of two decades, 50 percent of the payouts in U.S. medical malpractice lawsuits involved only 2 percent of doctors.

In other words, the numbers suggest that systematizing medicine doesn’t do much good if doctors are incompetent. To drive the point home, consider that out of our country’s 650,000 doctors, each year only 0.04 percent lose their medical licenses. It would take half a century, then, to revoke the licenses of the 2 percent of doctors who pose the biggest risks.

Our medical malpractice website has more on holding negligent doctors accountable.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “When medical errors kill,” Philip Levitt, March 15, 2014