In a recent argument about alternative medicine, someone showed me the link to this article, about how medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. My opponent in this debate was trying to make the point that we shouldn't trust modern medicine so much, because doctors make so many mistakes. Now, this is an infuriatingly common strategy, screaming and hollering about how often science has been wrong and therefore we shouldn't trust those scientists and so by default we should turn to whoever is screaming and hollering as if mistakes not screamed and hollered about don't exist.
But I'm not going to rant about that particular rhetorical ploy now. Instead, I want to talk about why it's actually amazingly good news, if more deaths are attributable to medical errors. Indeed, I would want to argue that the best possible case would be if 100% of deaths were caused by medical errors.
Consider. If 100% of all deaths were caused by medical errors, that would mean that nobody ever died of anything else. In other words, there would be no circumstance in which a doctor could sadly tell a grieving family, "I'm sorry, we did everything we could, but the injuries were just too severe" or the disease had no cure or whatever. Every potential cause of death could be cured if only no errors had been made. If 100% of all deaths were the result of medical error, that would mean that medical science had advanced to a point where we were in principle immortal, because medicine applied without error could always save us.
Statistics are tricky. It's really easy to misinterpret what they mean, especially if you don't look at the full context. A similar argument can be made about rising cancer mortality rates, which is also potentially good news overall, depending on what is happening with average lifespans. Cancer is one of those things that you can, as a rough approximation, associate with old age: the older you get, the more opportunities there are for oncogenic mutations, and the more time there is for tiny proto-tumours to develop into life-threatening ones. (You, yes you, actually have several of these tiny prototumours right now, but they may take longer than your natural lifespan to become dangerous.) So if it's reported that more people are dying of cancer than they used to, that can actually be evidence that we're getting better at preventing earlier deaths from other things. The more people die of old age related illnesses like cancer, the more successful we have been at helping people live longer. It's not that cancer is becoming a bigger threat; it's that all the other threats are getting smaller.
So obviously, if doctors are becoming more careless and making more mistakes, that's a bad thing, and naturally we want them to make fewer mistakes than they are, no matter how many or how few they're making. But statistically, pointing out that a larger proportion of deaths are due to medical error doesn't mean medicine is untrustworthy. It may actually mean the very opposite.