In 2000, the Institute of Medicine released a ground-breaking report that estimated that there were as many as 98,000 preventable deaths occurring in hospitals each year. The report, titled, “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System,” focused national attention on the problem of medical errors. Now, a new study has revealed that the numbers are even worse than originally thought.

The study, whose results were published in the Journal of Patient Safety (2013;9:122-128) estimated patient harm based on four published studies published from 2008 to 2011. Results indicate that there are as many as 210,000 to 440,000 deaths per year associated with preventable harm in hospitals. This would make medical errors the third leading cause of death in the United States, after cancer and heart disease.

The new study is making headlines in mainstream media, and most experts agree that whatever the actual number of errors is, it is far too many and reveals a crisis in our healthcare system.

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The study author, John T. James, PhD, a NASA toxicologist who runs an organization called Patient Safety America, had personal issues for wanting to bring the problem to light. His 19-year-old son died after what James contends was negligent hospital care.

In the conclusion to the study results, James writes: “In a sense, it does not matter whether the deaths of 100,000, 200,000 or 400,000 Americans each year are associated with PAEs [preventable adverse events] in hospitals. Any of the estimates demands assertive action on the part of providers, legislators, and people who will one day become patients.” He expressed hope that the new estimates will cause a public outcry for change and increased vigilance to avoid harm to patients.