The seminal and oft-cited estimate offered more than 20 years ago by the national Institute of Medicine concerning the number of people who die annually in American hospitals owing to medical mistakes was for some time viewed as unrealistic.

The IOM report entitled “To Err is Human” posited that nearly 100,000 deaths occur each year in medical facilities due to things like misdiagnosis, medication error, hospital-acquired infections and assorted acts of physician negligence.

Critics called that estimate a stark error.

Those critics were wrong.

In fact, say a number of knowledgeable commentators on the subject, it is well past the time that the IOM fatality estimate should be used, but only because it is almost certain to be a gross underestimation of the number of patient deaths that occur each year.

There have been strong signals for years that the IOM number underreports hospital deaths owing to medical errors. Slightly more than a decade ago, an IG report for the Department of Health and Human Services stated that nearly double that amount of Medicare patients alone die annually from deficient care.

And now new study conclusions that are being readily accepted by many medical experts point to revised fatality numbers that are sharply higher than previous estimates. A retooled estimate that is based on more sophisticated research than prior studies concludes that more than 200,000 patients, and perhaps even as many as 440,000 persons, die every year from hospital mistakes.

If true, that would rank medical error only behind heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death in the United States.

Source: NPR, “How many die from medical mistakes in U.S. hospitals?” Marshall Allen, Sept. 20, 2013