Doctors and other health professionals make mistakes. That’s just a fact. They’re human and they don’t intend to mess up, but they do. Some patients escape harm from these medical mistakes. Others aren’t so lucky. Medical errors can make patients’ existing health problems worse, inflict new injuries, or even put patients’ lives in danger.
In this blog post, we discuss the four top categories of common medical mistakes that lead to serious injury and tragic loss of life. For each, we review how these mistakes can occur, potential harms that can come from them, and steps patients can take to protect against falling victim to medical malpractice.
If a medical mistake has injured you or a loved one, contact the Dolman Law Group today.
What Should Happen
To understand what medical errors are and how they can occur, we find it helps to take a step back and look at what should happen in an interaction between a patient and his or her medical team. As you will see, the steps described in the ideal medical care experience also highlight all of the ways things can go wrong.
In an ideal health care scenario, here’s generally what should happen (recognizing, of course, that the facts and circumstances of an individual case may differ):
- A patient seeks help from a medical provider for an ailment or set of symptoms.
- The provider takes health-related information from the patient to ensure the patient sees the appropriate professional and that the patient isn’t in need of emergency care.
- The provider obtains a relevant health history from the patient and/or from electronic health records to which the provider has access.
- The provider assesses the patient’s medical condition by conducting an examination and asking appropriate questions, taking note of the patient’s ability (or lack thereof) to respond accurately and completely.
- The provider orders testing if appropriate.
- The provider offers a preliminary diagnosis and proposed course of treatment. If further information is necessary before reaching a conclusive diagnosis, the provider explains that to the patient. If further testing or evaluation by a specialist is required, the provider explains why and takes the necessary steps to ensure those occur.
- Upon receiving reasonably complete information, the provider makes a timely final diagnosis and/or recommendation for a further course of treatment, which may include interventions such as medication, surgery, or therapy, or further analysis and care by specialized medical providers.
- The provider ensures the patient understands the diagnosis/recommendation and the benefits and risks associated with them.
- The provider gives the patient an opportunity to ask questions and/or seek a second opinion.
- The diagnosis/recommendation addresses the health condition for which the patient sought help and any other health condition the medical provider identifies as requiring attention.
- The provider follows-up with the patient in a timely and appropriate manner.
- Nothing in the interactions between patient and provider causes the patient harm.
Now that we’ve reviewed what should happen in a health care setting, let’s take a look at the top categories of mistakes that unfortunately occur far too often and cause patients harm.
Mistakes of Information
Information about a patient guides all medical diagnosis and treatment. In every health care setting, one of the most critical tasks for members of a medical team is to obtain and record information relevant to the patient’s care. That information must be accurate and complete.Mistakes of information occur when medical providers fail to complete these tasks effectively.
- Failing to obtain relevant health histories from patients;
- Errors in writing down, typing, or transcribing patient health information;
- Failing to ask a patient appropriate questions about symptoms.
- Failing to inquire about medications a patient is currently taking.
- Failing to follow-up with a patient.
All of the mistakes above affect the quality and completeness of the information health care providers have available in making diagnoses and treatment recommendations. They can lead to any of the following missteps, all of which could inflict serious, even lethal, harm on a patient:
- Misdiagnosis/missed diagnosis. Incorrect information causes a provider to diagnose a patient incorrectly, or not to diagnose a medical condition at all.
- Improper medication and dosing. Faulty information about a patient can cause a health care professional to prescribe medication, or a dosage, that harms the patient.
- Harmful or unnecessary interventions. A doctor recommending a course of treatment based on bad information may cause a patient to have to endure damaging therapies or to undergo a risky surgery that has no potential benefit.
Patients can steer clear of falling victim to many mistakes of information in a medical setting by:
- Insisting on getting questions answered, even if they feel like a pest in being persistent.
- Having an advocate with them in medical settings where it’s reasonably likely they will not be able to speak for themselves.
- Coming into medical settings prepared with notes or other reminders to help ensure they tell the doctors everything they think the doctors need to know about how they’re feeling.
Mistakes of Communication
Closely related to mistakes of information, mistakes of communication affect the quality and completeness of data medical providers need to have on hand to do their jobs. They stem, however, from breakdowns in how important information gets transmitted from one person to another. These mistakes include:
- Failure of the provider in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood to have a Spanish-speaking team member who can translate for patients.
- Breakdowns in technology that prevent providers from sharing electronic health records.
- Failure to communicate critical patient information in “handoffs” from one provider to another, especially in emergency or surgical settings in which one provider takes over from another.
- Losing patient information, such as by placing information about a patient in the wrong paper file or electronic folder.
- Failure of medical team members to understand what each other is saying, such as because of heavy accents, hearing difficulties, or ambient noise.
When mistakes of communication happen, they can have devastating consequences. For example:
- Wrong-site surgeries. A horror-story example of how communications mistakes lead to injury is when surgical teams fail to communicate effectively about the part of a patient’s body to be operated on, such as when a diabetic has the wrong foot amputated or an orthopedist operates on the wrong shoulder or knee.
- Medication given to the wrong patient. Similar to wrong-site surgeries, a failure to communicate patient information in a clear and accurate way can lead to medication for one patient being administered to another, leading to potentially life-threatening complications.
- Patient discharged too early. When hospital staff fails to communicate about a patient’s course of care, a patient may find him or herself being discharged from the hospital too early or with inappropriate support.
Communication errors can be difficult for patients to avoid because they often happen outside of the patient’s hearing or presence, but some potential strategies can be:
- If you sense a misunderstanding when telling a medical provider about your condition, such as because of a language barrier, speak slowly, clearly, and deliberately.
- Before a surgery, make sure you know what procedure is being done and confirm the providers at your bedside know it too.
- If you see a medication given to you or a family member that doesn’t seem right, speak up.
Mistakes of Performance
Whereas the first two categories of common medical mistakes primarily involve informational failures, mistakes of performance have to do with how medical providers carry out important tasks. Some examples of performance mistakes in a medical setting include:
- Accidentally severing a nerve or critical blood vessel during surgery.
- Dropping or injuring a patient when transferring the patient from one bed to another.
- Failing to monitor and respond to patient vital signs.
- Misperforming or misinterpreting tests.
Mistakes of performance can cause direct physical injury to a patient, as the list above suggests. Patients who fall victim to these mistakes may have to endure:
- Preventable (emergency) interventions. When a medical provider makes a mistake in performing a procedure, it may spawn the need for additional procedures, sometimes on an emergency basis. These extra interventions subject patients to risks they should never have had to face were it not for the provider’s initial error.
- Longer recovery times and worse outcomes. Patients injured by medical performance mistakes may have to spend extra time healing, and may find their health outcomes limited by the damage the medical provider caused.
- Long-term disabilities when a mistake leaves a patient with a lasting injury, such as nerve damage or a brain injury.
- Severe distress. Patients injured by a medical professional who makes a performance mistake often suffer significant psychological trauma. Mistakes of this nature constitute a terrible breach of trust and leave patients wondering “what if” they hadn’t selected this provider, or this surgery date.
How can a patient protect against these sorts of mistakes? Here are some ideas:
- Schedule procedures in the morning when medical teams are likely to be rested and less prone to mistakes.
- Choose medical professionals carefully. Read reviews of your doctors and other providers. Use online resources to investigate whether claims have been made against them or if they have been disciplined by licensing boards. You can’t predict every mistake a doctor makes, but a doctor with a track record of problems is probably also a doctor you should avoid.
- Think carefully about having elective procedures. The fewer times a patient goes “under the knife,” the lower the odds of suffering an injury from a medical error.
Mistakes of Judgment
The last major category of mistakes in medical settings involves errors of judgment. Even when a doctor or other health care professional does everything “right” by receiving and reviewing accurate information, and performing tasks correctly, there is still room for error in what the provider decides to do. The practice of medicine is certainly based on science, but doctors will still tell you some of what they do is art. They have to make “calls” about patient care. Sometimes they make the wrong call. For instance:
- Recommending an experimental course of treatment when a standard course would be more effective.
- Deciding to perform emergency surgery when a non-surgical intervention would have a better outcome.
- Changing a medical dosage when keeping it unchanged would have been safer for the patient.
- Interpreting a constellation of symptoms as an unusual condition instead of as a more probable one.
Mistakes of judgment can lead to every one of the negative health outcomes above. Misdiagnosis and missed-diagnosis are a common result, as are unnecessary procedures and surgeries, premature discharges from care, and misprescribing of medication.
Unfortunately, despite their potential harms, these are the most difficult types of mistakes for patients to avoid. The best defense against them is for a patient to seek a second opinion from a doctor equally, if not better, qualified to evaluate the patient’s condition. Patients occasionally worry doctors will take offense at them asking for a second opinion. We encourage our clients to set this concern aside. More often than not, two judgments are better than one, and they can help prevent judgment errors that cost patients their lives and livelihoods.
Experienced Legal Help for Medical Mistakes in New Port Richey, Florida
As the four categories above suggest, mistakes can happen in a medical setting for a wide range of reasons. These mistakes can leave patients struggling for their lives and contending with devastating disabilities. Some mistakes prove fatal.
By and large, the types of medical mistakes we describe above should never happen. When they do, patient-victims may have the legal right to recover compensation. To obtain the maximum compensation available, however, usually takes the advice and guidance of a skilled medical malpractice attorney who has the experience and resources to demonstrate what went wrong in a medical setting, and why a medical provider should be held accountable.
If you or a loved one sought medical help in the New Port Richey area that resulted in an injury, disability, or tragic loss of life, contact the team of dedicated medical malpractice attorneys at the Dolman Law Group today. We offer a free consultation to help you evaluate whether you may have a legal claim for damages.
Dolman Law Group
5435 Main Street
New Port Richey, FL, 34652