Twelve years ago, John James’ 19-year-old son died after cardiologists at two Texas hospitals made a series of mistakes. James says they failed to properly diagnose and treat the cause of an abnormal heartbeat. At the time he was the chief toxicologist for NASA in Houston, responsible for overseeing the air astronauts breathe in space. Now retired, he has responded to the tragedy by dedicating his life—and his son’s memory—to improving hospital safety.
He founded Patient Safety America, an organization that educates people about risks they may face in hospitals. He became active in Consumer Reports’ own Safe Patient Project, which works with people across the country who have been harmed by medical care. And last year he authored a comprehensive analysis on the number of people who die at least in part because of medical errors in hospitals.
Patient harm in hospitals may be the nations third leading cause of death, trailing only heart disease and cancer.
His conclusion—published in the Journal of Patient Safety, a peer-reviewed medical journal—was sobering. He estimated that 440,000 people each year die after suffering a medical error in the hospital. Some patients, for example, might have gotten the wrong drugs or developed infections because doctors or nurses failed to wash their hands. Others may have failed to get needed tests or treatments.
“Four-hundred-forty-thousand is a frightening figure,” James says. It’s more than 1,000 deaths per day, for example, or more than half of the deaths that occur in U.S. hospitals each year. “And it makes patient harm in hospitals the nation’s third leading cause of death, trailing only heart disease and cancer,” James says.