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As a data-driven organization, the National Safety Council pays close attention when new information about injuries and fatalities comes out. So when a study estimated that there might be an additional 250,000 preventable deaths every year, we took notice.
Conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and published in the British Medical Journal, the study looked at eight years of data to project that medical errors might cause 250,000 deaths a year in hospital patients. The researchers suggested in the study that updating the way deaths are classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would help identify medical error trends leading to future prevention strategies.
From a broad, safety-based perspective, the study revealed three fundamental truths, the first being that the prevalence of unintentional deaths in the United States – already the fourth leading cause of death – is almost certainly higher than previously thought. NSC figures show about 130,000 unintended deaths every year, those resulting from drug overdoses, car crashes, falls, workplace incidents and other circumstances; seeing the number more than doubled with the inclusion of medical errors reminds us of all the hazards around us.
The second truth is that all of these deaths can be prevented. Possible medical errors that contribute to deaths include communication breakdowns, shift work, fatigue, diagnostic errors and post-operative infections. Just as in any setting with known risks, there are processes and procedures that can reduce or eliminate each of these hazards, if the procedures are developed thoroughly and enforced rigorously.
Third, a change in the process for recording deaths could be an enormous step toward preventing them. The Council is a data-driven organization; we look at the information available first to identify a problem and then to solve it. By improving the coding system and recording in greater detail the circumstances of these deaths, the medical field can become better informed and its patients can become better protected.
Here at NSC we're not equipped to identify causes of death. But we do believe, very strongly, in the benefits of information. Learning what factors might be contributing to the deaths of a quarter of a million people a year seems an excellent step toward preventing those deaths.
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