The Magnitude of Common Medical Errors


These statistics are staggering. Medical care in our country is technically complex. The volume of new knowledge generated by clinical researchers each year is overwhelming, and challenging at best for physicians seeking innovative ways to optimize patient care.

But 440,000 people dying annually? That is the equivalent of more than the total population of New Port Richey, Clearwater, Aventura, Boca Raton, and Ft. Lauderdale, combined, dying every year due to preventable medical errors.

In this post, we discuss the differences between medical errors and malpractice, common medical errors, and steps you can take to protect yourself from them.

“Medical Error” and “Malpractice” Compared

What constitutes a medical error?” The question is simple and straightforward, but the answer is not. Errors can include problems in practice methods, types and age of products used, as well as actual procedures. But, due to an absence of scientifically accepted standardized wording, overlapping definitions, and possible compromised data analysis, it is extremely difficult to accurately measure “medical errors.”

In most cases, the term “medical error” encompasses both foreseeable and unforeseeable accidents during treatment or operation. Malpractice, in contrast, typically happens when a doctor knew or should have known of a potential danger to a patient and failed to take steps to prevent it, such as prescribing a drug with an adverse side effect, or failing to properly diagnose an obvious illness.

Common Medical Errors

Medical errors can be classified into three broad categories: surgical and procedural, information technology, and communication. Here’s an overview of each.

Surgical and procedural errors. Some of the most common errors that occur when providing health care relate to mistakes made during surgery or in following medical procedure. These include:

  • Adverse drug reactions
  • Burns
  • Equipment failure
  • Lack of preventative care
  • Injury from falls and immobility
  • Improper transfusions
  • Misdiagnosis, delay in diagnosis, or failure to utilize the appropriate test
  • Failure to act on laboratory test results
  • Mistaken patient identities
  • Pressure ulcers
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Preventable suicides
  • Restraint-related death
  • Surgical injuries
  • Under and overtreatment
  • Errors in administering treatment (wrong dose or wrong site of administration)
  • Wrong-site surgery

Information technology errors. In addition to surgical and procedural errors, the prevalence of information technology in healthcare comes with its own unique set of potential errors.

One of the most common IT issues is inadvertently charting information or placing orders on the wrong patient. While the intent behind the use of electronic health records (EHR) is to provide better, and more timely information across a broad spectrum of providers, software workflows and “ease-of-use” may inadvertently facilitate charting information on the wrong patient, or making simple data entry errors. Additionally, because of the design of some EHR systems, it may be difficult to go back and correct entry errors, and entry errors can be immediately disseminated across an entire health care system, propagating false information and magnifying its potential harms. Also, when a computer system’s server malfunctions, significant problems with documentation may be expected when providers have to revert to pen-and-paper charting, and then transfer that information to the EHR system when it comes back online.

Communication errors. Errors also occur when medical providers fail to communicate important patient information to one another. Risk factors for miscommunication and verbal errors include:

  • Cultural differences among patients and providers.
  • Language barriers.
  • Office politics and/or disparity in authority between one provider and another.
  • Transitioning a patient from one setting to another.
  • Emergent care situations.
  • Over-reliance on monitors to supply information.
  • Pride, ego, or not wanting to admit an earlier error.

When mistakes happen, everybody loses. Healthcare providers have to deal with the repercussions of tragic patient outcomes, and families must face the aftermath of unanticipated injury or loss.

What Patients Can Do to Protect Themselves

During a hospital stay, it is important for patients and their families to remain vigilant and be proactive. You can mitigate medical errors in the hospital by following some simple steps:

  • Do your part. Be prepared to provide an accurate, up to date medical history, a current medication list, and names and telephone numbers of all your personal physicians.
  • Do not assume anything. Ask questions. Make sure you are informed about and understand the physician’s action plan.
  • Make yourself heard. You have a voice, speak up if you think something is wrong. Be your own advocate, or the advocate for your loved one who cannot speak for themselves, and ask to speak to a supervisor if you are ignored.
  • Get clarification. Patients and their loved ones should clarify who is directing orders and information about their care plan. Although physician assistants, nurses, pharmacists, and technicians all play vital roles in patient care, continuity of care mandates that one physician is in charge.

Consumers have avenues available for investigating medical providers and facilities before undergoing procedures and for reporting injury and suspected errors.

Despite relevant data and statistics of epidemic proportions, supporters of tort reform are working hard in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures to limit provider accountability when patients are harmed in a healthcare setting. This mindset leaves people at a higher risk of harm from medical errors and only serves to improve the insurance industry’s bottom line.

Going forward the best we can hope for is we learn from these unfortunate mistakes. As a community of concerned citizens, we all can contribute to reducing preventable medical errors. When we learn to recognize, respond to, and monitor them we will see positive changes in the current medical standards of care.

Be a smart consumer. Expect nothing less than quality care for yourself and your family. If you feel you, or someone you love, has been harmed by the healthcare system, call Dolman Law Group at (727) 853-6275 or write to us online. We have a stellar team of attorneys experienced in medical malpractice lawyer who can meet to discuss your situation.

Dolman Law Group
5435 Main Street
New Port Richey, FL 34652
(727) 853-6275