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Cancer and medical errors: an FAQ

Admitting the frequency of medical errors is difficult for the mind to do.

After all, these errors occur in a health care system to which we entrust ourselves and our loved ones for care. To keep anxiety at bay, you naturally want to believe the best about this system.

Unfortunately, evidence of errors continues to accumulate. And of course when the error involves failure to diagnose cancer, the consequences are potentially life-threatening.

In this post, we will address some common questions about cancer and medical errors.

How many people die due to medical errors each year?

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a respected research organization, estimated that the number of people who die due to preventable medical errors is between 44,000 and 98,000 per year.

Research on the question has continued ever since. Overall, it has tended to conclude that the original estimate by the IOM was too low. A recent report in the British Medical Journal suggested at least a quarter of a million deaths (250,000) result from medical errors.

Where does that number of deaths rank among the causes of death?

It would rank third, behind heart disease and cancer and ahead of chronic respiratory disease.

But the federal Centers for Disease Control does not have a system in place yet for keeping track of fatalities from medical mistakes. The classification codes used on death certificates do not allow for deaths due to medical mistakes to be recorded.

What are some of the most common medical errors?

As we have discussed before in this blog, diagnostic errors by doctors are surprisingly common. Medication errors are as well.

There are also errors that are made not by doctors or nurses, but by computers. To be sure, the medical system is complicated. But there are far too many breakdowns and communication errors in that system.

What should you do if you suspect medical malpractice caused an injury or death?

Talking with an attorney who is knowledgeable about cancer misdiagnosis and other medical malpractice issues makes sense in this situation. Otherwise you will remain uncertain and might miss out on a potential legal claim for compensation.