Despite everything you see on television, doctors and other medical personnel are human and sometimes make mistakes.
When the mistakes reach a certain severity level, legal professionals call these mistakes medical errors or malpractice.
According to a Johns Hopkins study, medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Typical Medical Errors
Some of the more common medical errors include:
- Medication Mistakes - Medication errors are among the most common mistakes in medical treatment. They can occur when a doctor prescribes the wrong dose or the wrong medication. They can also happen when the prescriber fails to consider drug interactions that may negatively affect the patient. The prescriber also needs to consider the patient’s particular medical history to ensure there are no allergies or sensitivities that need to be considered before prescribing a specific medication. Failing at any one of these steps can cause painful or fatal consequences for the patient.
- Anesthesia Mistakes - Anesthesia mistakes are becoming more common and are now the seventh most common cause of death. Most anesthesia mistakes occur in the operating room and are attributable to human error. The most common mistakes include dosing errors, over-delivery of the residual medicine, poor post-op pain management, documentation errors, and insufficient control of IV flow. These mistakes can lead to results as minor as nausea, vomiting, and chills or as catastrophic as coma and death.
- Hospital-Acquired Infections - Although Joseph Lister taught everyone how to stay clean in hospitals in the mid-19th century, healthcare-associated infections remain a real risk in most medical situations today. Patients throughout a hospital face a six percent overall infection rate, while those in ICU have an 18 percent infection rate. Sometimes, these infections occur because hospital personnel don’t follow hygiene guidelines. Others are related to medical equipment infections, such as those from IVs and catheters. Infections may also occur at surgical sites or from the use of a ventilator.
- Diagnosis Mistakes - Problems can arise when the diagnosis is late, wrong, or not made at all. A late diagnosis can transform a treatable illness into one that is terminal. An incorrect diagnosis leads to inappropriate treatment, which, if it does not harm the patient, does not help either, leaving the underlying illness untreated. Finally, if missed long enough, a missed diagnosis can be fatal and will, in any case, prolong the patient’s suffering.
- Poor Treatment Follow Up and Post-Procedure Monitoring - Whether at home or in the hospital, any treatment or procedure requires staff or patient follow-up and monitoring. Hospital stays today are for those in need of a high level of care, and therefore patients are often discharged with lower levels of additional care still required. They may go home or to another kind of facility. In either case, both patients and medical staff must perform all follow-up care completely and carefully to avoid rehospitalization.
Common Causes of Medical Errors
These medical mistakes often have many of the same causes. Some of the issues that result in medical errors are:
Poor Communication and Information Flow - Because so many people are involved in modern medical care, communication and information flow problems are the most common causes of medication errors. These mistakes happen when doctors don’t talk to doctors and when you don’t communicate well with your doctors. They also occur because drug names often sound alike, and the drugs themselves often look alike. Finally, medical abbreviations like PRN, a not so obvious term meaning take as needed, can confuse you and the person filling the prescription. The best risk prevention is to make sure you know the names of your medications and that you communicate with your doctors and those who give you medications.
Sleep Deprivation - Sleep deprivation is common among hospital staff, particularly among residents who have to work 80-hour weeks with 28-hour shifts. Even recent cuts in the permissible hours for medical residents appear to have led to doing the same amount of work in shorter but still grueling hours.
The resulting sleep deprivation can cause many potential disastrous effects:
- Memory problems - clearly a risky proposition in medical care
- Concentration and thinking problems - another obviously perilous consequence
- Accidents - easily an issue in a medical setting
- Weakened immunity - a problem for those exposed professionally to infections
Staffing Problems - There is a direct relationship between the number of hospital staff and the increases in medical mistakes and patient mortality. Sometimes, however, the issue is the quality of the staff work rather than staff numbers. Hospital staff sometimes takes risky short\cuts once they feel comfortable with a particular procedure, and these risky behaviors can result in patient harm. Taking medications on a grab-and-go basis without reading labels, poor communication, and failure to ask for help are all typical staff behaviors causing patient harm.
Technical Problems - Among the most common technology-related medical errors found in one study are dose omission, wrong dosage, and extra doses, all resulting from problems with the IT governed prescription and pharmacy systems. Other problems include robotic surgery problems, which can involve pieces of tools ending up in the patient, electrical sparking, and unintended movement by the equipment.
Mishandling of electronic records can also lead to medical errors, often resulting in huge malpractice awards. Infusion pumps can malfunction or be defective, and scanning and X-ray technology can also fail to perform. Any of these mishaps can cause significant medical errors and adverse patient results.
Hospital Policies & Procedures - Sometimes, the policies and procedures that a hospital implements to prevent errors can end up creating them. Clearly defined and enforced policies and procedures can greatly improve patient safety. They increase automatic reaction and communication. A lack of or poorly written policies and procedures can lead to confusion, a failure to understand requirements, and poor patient outcomes.
Lack of policy reduces communication, and poor communication is the basis for a very large proportion of medical errors. Finally, a lack of appropriate policies and procedures may increase the risk of losses in medical malpractice since it can be evidence of negligence.