A new study concludes that medical errors are so common that they are the third leading cause of death, though the researchers say error-related deaths currently are not documented well.

The researchers reached their conclusion by analyzing data from 1999 and after to determine the total number of U.S. hospital admissions in 2013 and a mean rate of medical error-related deaths at 251,454 per year. That number makes medical error the third most common cause of death in the United States when compared to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study was led by Martin Makary, MD, MPH, FACS, professor of surgery and health policy & management at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. (The study was published in the British Medical Journal and is available online at http://bit.ly/1rtW6Sa.) Their work revealed that deaths related to medical errors are not well documented in death certificates, and they suggest that a new field be added to the certificates asking if the death was related to an avoidable complication of medical care.

They also suggest that medical error-related deaths could be decreased by making errors more visible as learning opportunities, having remedies available to rescue patients, and more thoroughly taking human limitations into account.