Chances of Dying From an In-Hospital Medical Error

“Errors in medicine include wrong diagnoses, drug dosage miscalculations, and treatment delays. These errors are likely to be underestimated because studies tend to focus exclusively on hospitals and not on the rest of the healthcare system; because some errors may only have debilitating effects years down the road for a patient and are thus harder to trace; and because reporting these errors may not be encouraged by the medical culture. The patient safety movement is important because errors that can be prevented should be prevented…

…A study from the UK reports that 3.6% of hospital deaths were due to preventable medical error; a similar study out of Norway reports 4.2%; and a meta-analysis of the problem published in the BMJ in 2019 concludes that at least one in 20 patients are affected by preventable patient harm, with 12% of this group suffering from permanent disability or dying because of this harm.”

So, let’s do some back of the envelope math. The American Hospital Association says there were 36,241,815 hospital admissions in 2021. The most recent data (2019) I can find is on Wonder that has in-patient hospital deaths was 813,249, which is close to the what was previously reported for a year. So, roughly 28,000 people die in hospitals due to medical error and 56,000 have some kind of disability as a result. If you look look at mortality by condition for 2019, that can look like a lot, depending on what you want to focus on, such as the same level as flu or twice the level of dying from inhaling food or vomit. But, some of that is due to the categories of cause of death and how Wonder reports them. When those get put into official lists, like the top causes of death, the number of flu deaths doubles and more than twice as many commit suicide as die as in-patients in a hospital due to medical error.

So, I guess the lesson here is that any time you enter a hospital, it is not without some risk. But, let’s put that risk in context. Of those entering a hospital, 2.2%, die. The chances of someone dying as an in-patient due to medical error are 4% of the 2.2%, or ~0.88%. If you want to put that risk in some kind of comparable risk category of preventable deaths, its just a little less than dying from an accidental gun discharge or sunstroke. Presumably the risk is higher the more severe your condition and isn’t uniform.