How Many People Die from Medical Lab Errors Every Year?

It’s well-known that cancer and heart disease rank among the leading causes of death in the United States.  What fewer people realize is that medical errors claim nearly as many lives as the conditions they seek to treat, becoming the third leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2013.

Medical Errors Become #3 Leading Cause of Death in U.S. Behind Cancer, Heart Disease

In October 2013, Hospital Safety Score issued a press release that begin with a shocking statistic: “New research estimates up to 440,000 Americans are dying annually from preventable hospital errors.” That number averages out to 36,667 deaths every month; 8,462 deaths every week; 1,205 deaths every day; 50 deaths every hour.  Together, colon infections at surgical sites and urinary tract infections (UTIs) caused by catheters will account for 18,000 of these deaths: about 4%.  By comparison, stroke causes 129,000 deaths annually.  Alzheimer’s disease causes 85,000. Cancer and cardiovascular disease, America’s leading killers, claim 585,000 and 611,000 lives every year, respectively – in some cases, because they went undiagnosed.

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The exact number of deaths caused specifically by laboratory errors, which can occur in hospital labs or outpatient clinical labs, such as Quest Diagnostics or LabCorp, is uncertain.  However, researchers do know that approximately 70% of medical decisions made my health care workers are based on laboratory tests and diagnostic screenings – and because so many treatment plans depend on doctors receiving accurate lab test data, there’s high potential for medical disaster when a lab technician makes a mistake.  Additionally, many large testing centers process huge volumes of tests, some as many as millions each year, which further increases the risk of an error occurring.

“We are burying a population the size of Miami every year from medical errors that can be prevented,” said Leah Binder, president and CEO of Leapfrog, the research group behind Hospital Safety Score, which is the country’s only nationally standardized measure for hospital evaluation.  “A number of hospitals have improved by one or even two grades, indicating hospitals are taking steps toward safer practices, but these efforts aren’t enough,” Binder continued.  “During this time of rapid health care transformation, it’s vital that we work together to arm patients with the information they need and tell doctors and hospitals that the time for change is now.”

1999 to 2013: Fatalities Caused by Medical Mistakes Quadruple

The urgency of Binder’s warning is justified, today more than ever. The past 20 years has seen a marked increase in preventable, fatal medical errors, which have more than quadrupled since the Institute of Medicine estimated 98,000 annual deaths in 1999.  In 2006, less than a decade later, Dr. Pamela F. Gallin, MD, Clinical Professor of Pediatric Ophthalmology at Columbia University, wrote the following in Reader’s Digest:

“A new study of 120 clinical pathology labs, where blood, urine and other fluid tests are done, estimates that each year in the United States, more than 2.9 million of these errors occur, and more than 160,000 patients are harmed in some way as a result.  The harm ranges from the stress and anxiety caused by an incorrect diagnosis that’s later reversed, to far more dangerous, though less common, outcomes, such as delayed treatment, transfusions of the wrong blood type, even unnecessary surgery.”

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Without intervention, there’s nothing to suggest the trend toward increasing numbers of wrongful deaths and injuries won’t continue well into the future.  In the search for best practices to avoid and reduce preventable errors, researchers have identified the following as some of the most common problems in medical labs:

  • Samples that are missing information.
  • Samples that are too small.
  • Blood samples that clot because they are mixed with the wrong amount of anti-coagulant.
  • Failure to read or record the results of a test correctly.
  • Failure to follow up with a patient or doctor for more testing or information.
  • Failure to notify a doctor or patient of test results within a reasonable period of time.
  • Storing samples in the wrong types of containers, which can admit contaminants or allow fluids to leak out.
  • Keeping samples in the wrong types of storage conditions, such as excessive heat, which can cause tissue samples to degrade and break down.
  • Losing paperwork or filing documents under the wrong patient’s name.
  • Conducting the right test on the wrong sample, or the wrong test on the right sample.

If one of your loved ones passed away because a Maryland medical lab failed to diagnose cancer, heart disease, or another serious condition, you and your family deserve answers and accountability.  Call the clinical malpractice lawyers of Whitney, LLP at (410) 583-8000 to set up a free, confidential legal consultation today.


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