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Study: Medical error is America's number 3 cause of death

The number one cause of death in the United States is heart disease. At number two is cancer, with its many variations.

These are well-known threats. People understand the links between obesity and heart disease. They know that cancer can come from many sources, from asbestos to smoking to the sun itself. Many of us know how to limit our risks and prolong our lives.

What may shock you is that researchers at Johns Hopkins believe the third leading cause of death in the country is a medical error.

Your risks

No one expects it to happen. Perhaps you have read some of the stories about people who suffered after surgical mistakes, unforeseen complications, infections or other preventable problems. Yes, it can happen, but is it really a threat to you?

You may be almost half as likely to die from a medical mishap than from cancer if this study's results are accurate. The Johns Hopkins estimate is 250,000 annual deaths from medical error, while heart disease and cancer stand at about 600,000 each. If only heart disease and cancer lead to more deaths every year, is it really safer to get in your car -- even with the high car accident statistics -- than to go to the hospital?

Beyond surgery

Surgery is a serious undertaking, so it makes for a good example of something with potentially fatal consequences. But it is important to remember that the risks go beyond surgery. Any mistake made in a medical setting could count as negligence and form the basis for a malpractice claim.

For instance, maybe you are allergic to a certain type of medication. If you get through the surgery without incident and then a nurse reads the wrong sheet and gives you that medication, you could pass away or suffer serious harm.

Or, perhaps doctors are supposed to monitor you for internal bleeding after the surgery. Through some miscommunication about whose shift it is, all staff members believe someone else is monitoring you when the reality is that no one is doing it. They do not catch the bleeding until it is too late.

Any error, no matter how minor it seems, could put you at risk. The numbers make it clear that things do not always go as planned.

Legal rights

Those who are injured or lose loved ones due to medical negligence need to understand their legal options. Speaking with a professional can help clarify things.

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