What Causes Medical Errors?
As medical malpractice attorneys, our practice is focused on medical errors that have injured our clients, and getting our clients compensation for those injuries. In this blog, we’ve talked about how medical error is one of the most underreported causes of death in the United States. But what exactly is a “medical error?” What causes them, and what can you do if one happens to you?
What Counts as a “Medical Error?”
Defining “medical error” is trickier than you think. A Harvard medical study defined medical error as an “unintended injury caused by medical management” that results in “measurable disability.” You don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer to spot the flaw in that definition: a mistake by a medical professional doesn’t stop being a mistake just because, by luck or otherwise, it failed to cause a disability.
We think a better definition is the one proposed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on Quality of Health Care in the U.S.: “the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim.” In other words, it is the failure of a medical professional to plan or act appropriately that defines a medical error—not just how seriously a patient was hurt. The seriousness of a patient’s injury goes to the issue of damages for an injury caused by a medical mistake—not whether a doctor’s actions constituted a mistake in the first place. That said, an injury and damages arising from a medical error is required for a medical malpractice claim.
Common Causes of Medical Error
Medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, therapists, and others, make mistakes every day. Studies estimate that there are 1.2 injury-causing medical errors each year in the United States—and that doesn’t include the many “near misses” where a mistake happens but harm is somehow avoided. But why are there so many mistakes? Here are some of the reasons we have identified.
Communication, both spoken and written, is vital in a health care setting. Thorough and accurate communication is essential for correct diagnosis, testing, and treatment, and a breakdown at any step of the process, including between care providers, can result in a mistake that harms a patient.
How many times have you made a decision that would have been different had you had more complete information? Unfortunately, this happens in medical settings, too. A doctor may prescribe a medication because she didn’t receive patient records that showed the patient had an allergic reaction to a similar drug. A laboratory may fail to transmit test results that would cause a doctor to order an important treatment. A hospital physician (hospitalist) discharging a patient may not send the patient’s primary physician critical instructions for follow-up care. A lack of essential information regularly causes medical professionals to make mistakes in their patients’ care.
We all know that doctors in hospitals work long shifts, often overtime, and for multiple days in a row. That doesn’t come without a cost. It is established that sleep deprivation and fatigue cause a number of problems that can lead physicians to make errors in patient care. Some of the issues stemming from exhaustion include decreased cognitive function, slower reaction time, difficulty learning and retaining new information, and even increased mood instability. Any of these issues, alone or in combination, can cause a doctor to make an error in judgment or execution.
Failure to Follow Procedures
There are any number of reasons medical professionals may fail to follow proper procedures, and this is another frequent cause of medical error that results in injury. When a sponge or piece of medical equipment is left inside a patient after a surgery, it is almost always because procedures for counting those items were not followed. The same is usually true when a surgeon operates on one arm or leg when the limb on the other side was the one in need of treatment—someone failed to mark the proper limb.
Even ordinarily diligent professionals cut corners when pressed for time. Rushing can cause a medical care provider to fail to confirm that the patient they’re transporting to a procedure is the one scheduled for that procedure, or to mislabel urine or blood samples.
Another reason medical workers may fail to follow procedures is that they have not been adequately trained, perhaps because of a hasty reassignment to an unfamiliar department where workers were needed urgently. And sometimes, medical workers don’t follow procedures because the facility in which they work has not taken the time to establish adequate policies and procedures to ensure patient safety.
Technical or Equipment Failures
Sometimes the materials used in diagnosing or treating patients fail. Examples include calibration errors for infusion pumps, leading to a patient receiving an incorrect dose of medicine; a defibrillator that fails to issue a shock when needed for a patient in cardiac arrest; or a monitoring system that does not sound the expected alarm when a patient’s condition deteriorates.
Medical providers treat patients based on the information they have from test results, examinations, and patient reporting, but that data gets filtered through their own biases—biases of which they may not even be aware. Implicit bias can lead a doctor to order a test for one patient but not another, even if their symptoms are identical. Bias can also affect the way physicians interpret test results or choose to treat symptoms.
What to Do as a Victim of Medical Error
Doctors are ethically obligated to disclose medical errors even if they don’t hurt the patient, but that doesn’t always happen. The bottom line is that you might not know the origin of a medical error that injured you. But if you believe you suffered harm as the result of a medical mistake, an experienced medical malpractice attorney can help get to the bottom of it. To learn more about the causes of medical mistakes, or to explore whether you have a valid claim for medical malpractice, contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.