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Lack of Health Insurance Isn’t the Largest Killer Within the U.S. Health Care System

(photo: José Goulão / flickr)

It’s estimated that 25,000 to 50,000 lives are lost each year in the U.S. due to lack of health insurance.   Therefore, lack of health insurance is among the top ten leading causes of death in this country.  Many people don’t realize this because government reports, the media and other sources of information fail to mention that lack of health insurance is a leading cause of death.  They also fail to mention that there is a much bigger problem within the health care industry that causes far more easily preventable deaths.

In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services found that medical errors cause 180,000 deaths per year(pdf) among Medicare patients.  Medicare patients represent the least healthy part of the U.S. population but they are also only 1/6 of the entire population.  Furthermore, the Medicare study was just limited to hospital errors and didn’t look at errors outside the hospital.  Outpatient deaths are estimated at 100,000 per year for the entire U.S population.  However, research suggests that using more accurate methods for detecting medical errors may yield a medical error rate that is three to ten times higher.  Therefore, an estimate of the total number of deaths due to medical errors would probably be far greater than just the 180,000 deaths mentioned in the 2010 report.

Is it hard to prevent medical errors?  No! Experts suggest that  health care professionals not washing their hands is the leading cause of medical errors(see this video which shows how children and one Dad figured out how to fix this problem).  The second largest problem is medication errors which could be addressed by requiring medical personnel to implement checks and warnings associated with the new medical record technology that is being implemented with HITECH portion of the Affordable Health Care Act.

Incredibly, the Obama administration’s response to the medical error crisis has been to ask for voluntary cooperation through the Partnership for Patients program to encourage the reduction of medical errors.  Similar plans have been effective in other countries but those plans were associated with regulations and not volunteerism.

People also die of a lot of things that aren’t classified as medical errors but nevertheless represent failures of the health care system.  The total number of preventable deaths from lack of health insurance, medical errors, unnecessary procedures, adverse drug reactions etc. …  has been estimated to be as high as one million deaths per year or about 1 out of 3 deaths in the United States.   Also see this 2004 medical report  and here which suggest that 680,000 preventable deaths occur each year

Experts state that tobacco is the leading cause of death with 465,000 tobacco-related deaths per year.  However, 50,000 + 600,000-1,000,000 deaths is a much higher number.  Admittedly those numbers need to be confirmed with more research.  However, will the research be done?  The initial research done in 1999 which just focused on medication errors had to wait eleven years for the new Medicare study and there is no sign of anyone conducting a new research.  During the 2000s, hospitals claimed they could solve the probably through process improvements.  Clearly, that idea has failed

An analysis of patient harm shows us where the real solution to the high economic costs of health care can be found.  The cost of medical errors have been estimated to be as high as a trillion dollars per year and may represent almost half of the US health care spending!  Public health care doesn’t just take out the high costs of insurance company paperwork . it also eliminates the for-profit motive which causes insurance companies to overwork health care providers and take others measures which may, in turn, lead to medical errors.

The PR response has been to claim lawsuit abuse.  That is, they claim that a few thousand lawsuits in the face of hundreds of thousands of deaths is too much but in one way they are correct.  The Republicans on the Supreme court also ruled that insurance companies can’t be held accountable for causing medical errors therefore hospitals and physicians must occasionally pay for medical errors that in many case may be the result of a for-profit culture.

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Dr. Todd Miller persuasion, health care, justice and intelligent civil dialogue.