According to a 2016 study published in The BMJ medical journal, Johns Hopkins patient safety experts found that more than 250,000 deaths per year are due to medical error in the US. Another study, published in the Journal of Patient Safety, says that this number is even higher — accounting for more than 400,000 deaths every year.
These studies have helped raise the alarm on this underrecognized cause of death, which accounts for 9–14 percent of all deaths in the US every year, and is the third-leading cause of death in the US overall. However, the consequences of medical errors aren’t just limited to these worst-case scenarios. Medical errors can range from diagnostic errors during pregnancy which result in birth injuries to hospital-acquired infections. Whatever the cause of a medical error, it can lead to lifelong impacts on patients, and can be sufficient grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Why Do Medical Errors Occur?
There are predictable reasons for medical errors, no matter how they manifest. Many boil down to the following avoidable elements:
- Poor communication between different doctors and departments: A failure to communicate effectively can result in errors ranging from wrong site surgeries to prescription errors.
- Inadequate training: Basic incompetence is at the root of many botched surgeries and misdiagnoses.
- Fatigue: As a default, doctors and nurses are overworked. When a surgeon at the end of a long shift is asked to complete an emergency procedure, they may be more likely to make mistakes.
- Drugs and alcohol: Some doctors and nurses turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress they face. And it’s a short way from an off-hours dependence on drugs and alcohol to letting addiction interfere with work duties.
- Neglect: Many medical errors are the result of neglect. When a surgical team fails to confirm that they are embarking on the correct procedure on the correct patient — along with a host of additional pre-op considerations — they set themselves up for the possibility of surgical error. When a doctor doesn’t follow the standard of care for monitoring a pregnancy, they are readying conditions for the possibility of a birth injury.
Surgical errors are more common than people would like to think — and the most devastating ones are among the most prevalent.
Two unique factors contribute to these mostly avoidable situations. Patients ascribe great importance to their surgeries — and often a not insignificant amount of anxiety — and naturally assume that their overworked surgeons share this feeling of importance, and don’t need to be reminded of the right leg to operate on, for example. Another contributing factor to these tragedies is that patients are often unconscious for their procedures.
In addition to wrong site surgeries, many other errors can rear their heads in these high-pressure situations:
- Accidental damage to surrounding organs, muscles, ligaments, tissue and nerves
- Anesthesia errors related to allergies
- Avoidable infection
- Improper incisions
- Poorly sterilized equipment
- Premature patient discharge
- Prolonged surgery
- Surgical tools left in the patient’s body
- Wrong procedures performed on patients
In a 2009 article, the Journal of the American Medical Association put the number of patient deaths due to misdiagnosis at 40,000–80,000 per year. These diagnostic errors include:
- Failure to recognize and treat complications: A failure to adjust a treatment plan to consider new developments in a condition can radically hurt a patient’s chances of recovery or stabilization.
- Misdiagnosis: A misdiagnosis can be worse than no diagnosis at all, as a patient may feel like their condition is under control when it isn’t.
- Missed or delayed diagnosis: When a doctor ignores risk factors and symptoms, they may be contributing to a worsened prognosis.
Get in Touch
When to Consult with an Experienced Malpractice Attorney
Most medical errors are avoidable, and some may cause serious injury or a worsened future outlook for a patient’s condition. The best course of action if you feel that an error has caused harm to you or a loved one is to consult with skilled attorneys like those at McEldrew Purtell as soon as possible. With 30 years of experience in medical malpractice, McEldrew Purtell is well suited to evaluate the situation and help determine if the injury suffered involved acts of medical negligence or professional malpractice.