How many patients do doctors kill by accident?

Paul Kedrosky writes:

There is a longstanding debate in the medical community about how many patients they kill by accident. There are many estimates, all fairly harrowing, but little overall agreement. It’s coming to a boil again, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever looked at the underlying claims and statistical data here.

The most recent paper, Strengthening the Medical Error “Meme Pool”, by Benjamin Mazer and Chadi Nabhan, seems to have a somewhat bizarre argument, that absence of evidence should be evidence of absence, and that “extrapolating” from small samples shouldn’t be allowed given how bad doctors are at determining the actual cause of death.

My reply:

I’m not sure what to think. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument presented in that article, although I think the whole “meme” thing adds zero to the value of their discussion. I think the real issue here is that we’ll need some clear definition of “preventable medical error” before talking about their rates.

I do remember a few years ago writing about a ridiculous claim that was made by a data scientist on a similar topic. The data scientist claimed that approximately 75 people a year were dying “in a certain smallish town because of the lack of information flow between the hospital’s emergency room and the nearby mental health clinic.” I don’t know if they guy was making this up, or what, but the “certain smallish town” thing really irritated me because it implied some specific knowledge, but the numbers didn’t make sense. The “smallish town” played the same role in this fake-statistics story as the “friend of a friend” plays in traditional urban folklore.

There are certain things you can say that are automatic crowd-pleasers. One such thing is anything against the U.S. health care system. There’s a lot of things to hate about the U.S. health care system but that doesn’t mean we should believe numbers that people just make up.