Dr. Martin Makary said the billing codes used to report causes of death "are designed to maximize billing rather than capture medical errors."
For that reason, there isn't a lot of accurate data on medical errors, he said.
The true cause of death is often not reported because it does not fit the vague coding system, doctors said. For example, a patient who dies from surgical complications could have his or her cause of death listed as the initial ailment that required surgery, not the surgical complication that caused his or her death.
Makary and his colleagues believe that more transparency and standardization within the medical community could help solve the problem.
Makary told medical journal BMJ: "When a plane crashes, there's an investigation, and the entire pilot community worldwide learns something from the crash. But yet in health care, the same things happen again and again, and many of them are never investigated."