Medical Mistakes: The leading cause of accidental deaths in America

By: Christopher M Davis, Attorney At Law | Posted: 14th September 2009

Hearst Newspapers has written an extensive article about the prevalence of medical mistakes and how they are the #1 cause of accident deaths in America. You can read the story on the Seattle Post Intellingencers web site.

The article states that 98,000 people die every year from medical mistakes. This is more than the number of people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Also, more than 99,000 patients succumb to hospital-acquired infections, and most of these deaths are clearly preventable.

Hearst reports that there is a prevalent veil of secrecy among hospitals when it comes to reporting the mistakes and the circumstances surrounding the preventable deaths of patients. It appears that among states that are participating in healthcare safety campaigns, just 20% of the hospitals in these areas are participating. You would think that the medical mistake-death statistics would provide some incentive for most if not all of these hospitals to participate in a campaign designed to reduce mistakes and prevent unnecessary mistaks.

The case of Michael Blankenship

A 15-year old boy sought dental treatment at the dental clinic of a well-known and highly respected hospital that specializes in treating children. Michael Blankenship had autism, but he received regular treatment at this hospital.

When Michael was discharged the hospitals chief pediatric dentist made a fatal mistake. She prescribed a Fentanyl pain patch because Michaels mother informed the hospital that her son could not, or would not, ingest oral medication due to his autism. This fact had also been recorded in Michaels chart years earlier.

The dentist prescribed Fentanyl, a very potent narcotic that is designed to treat chronic pain patients. According to the drugs warning label, Fentanyl should never be prescribed to an opiate-naive patient like a young 15-year-old boy who had no history of using narcotic medication over a long period of time. And the drug should never be used to treat acute pain, or pain following surgery on an as needed basis.

But Michaels dentist prescribed the highest dose available, and instructed mom to apply the patch later that evening. Even the hospitals head pharmacist failed to detect the mistake, and also told mom again that the prescription was accurate and the dose safe.

Michaels mother did as instructed. The next morning Michael was found dead in his room. The Fentanyl patch delivered so much of the narcotic to Michaels system that it caused respiratory arrest and this caused his death. As you can imagine, Michaels mother is devastated.

The whole family is now suffering over what was a very preventable mistake. It never should have happened had there been appropriate safeguards in place by the hospital.

A dentist decided to prescribe a lethal dose of a narcotic that never should have been prescribed in the first place. The dentist merely had to consult the Physician Desk Reference (a reference book that most physicians have in their office) to discover that there were at least 5 warning signs in Michaels case which would have informed any reasonably competent doctor that the drug should not be used at all.

What can we do as a society to prevent medical mistakes? The first order of business is to communicate how prevalent mistakes are in our hospitals today. Yet the doctors and the state medical association consistently spout propaganda to deflect attention of these mind-numbing statistics by arguing that doctors should be immune from mistakes so lawyers cant sue and obtain million dollar jury verdicts.

Ive never seen a multi-million dollar verdict against a doctor or hospital that didnt involve a horrible injury or the needless death of a patient. When negligent physicians and hospitals maim and kill, they cause a substantial amount of suffering, pain, and usually an extensive neeed for future medical care.

Just a few years ago the Washington State Medical Association waged an aggressive campaign to limit damages recoverable in medical negligence cases. The doctors argued that physicians were having to leave the state in record numbers because of outrageous insurance premiums. The measure was soundly defeated by Washington citizens. But word is that the WSMA is planning its next attack in the coming years.

The article by Hearst has again raised awareness of a problem that no one, not the local and national governments combined, has addressed through public attention and intelligent disclosure laws. If hospitals were forced to report all incidences of negligence, then I believe more would be done to avoid the mistakes in the first place. But the healthcare industry has continued to fight against reasonable reporting and disclosure laws.


Seattle attorney Chris Davis has been practicing for 15 years in the area of wrongful death and personal injury. For more information on Chris and his firm, The Davis Law Group, visit our website About the Author

Occupation: Attorney, Lawyer

Washington attorney Christopher Michael Davis has been representing individuals in accident cases and against insurance companies since 1994. In 2006, he was named a Rising Star Attorney by Washington Law & Politics magazine (this recognition is given only to the top 2.5% of lawyers age 40 and under in Washington State). In 2007, Washington Law & Politics named Mr. Davis a Super Lawyer (the top 5% of lawyers in Washington). Mr. Davis speaks at Continuing Legal Education seminars on topics related to personal injury. He teaches and instructs other lawyers in Washington State on topics such as jury selection, proving damages and developing winning trial techniques. Mr. Davis has been licensed to practice law in Washington State since 1993. He has obtained millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements for his clients. Mr. Davis is a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, American Association for Justice, and the North American Brain Injury Society. Learn more about Mr. Davis by visiting

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