What Causes Medical Errors in the ER?

Doctor wheeling patient

Medical errors are estimated to cause 250,000 deaths each year in the United States. That’s the rough equivalent of two 737s crashing each day of the year and killing everyone aboard. Medical mistakes are so common, in fact, that they are the third leading cause of death in this country. Errors can happen anywhere that medical care is provided, of course, but they seem to be especially prevalent in the emergency room. Why is that, and is there any way you can reduce your risk of serious injury or death from medical malpractice in the ER?

The good news is that yes, you can reduce your risk of falling victim to a medical error in the ER, although it is probably impossible to eliminate that risk entirely. To have the best chance of good care in the ER, however, it is important to understand what causes mistakes.

Why Mistakes are More Common in the ER

Emergency departments are usually attached to a hospital, but they are often a very different environment than inpatient treatment floors. Emergency rooms are often overcrowded, and sometimes short-staffed. By definition, most patients are in urgent need of care, and staff must constantly triage cases, ensuring that the people in most desperate need of treatment get care first. In short, the environment can be chaotic.

In a chaotic environment, it’s easy for information to get missed. Staff may be rushed in taking a medical history from a patient, or neglect to record or communicate essential information. If the patient has been treated at the hospital or ER before, failure to thoroughly review their chart could result in important details being overlooked.

Common Medical Errors in the Emergency Department

Patients in an ER need treatment, but often, they need an accurate diagnosis first. Is that severe headache caused by a stroke or a migraine? Is that chest pain a symptom of a heart attack or indigestion? Misdiagnosis is far and away the most common type of emergency department malpractice. To make matters worse, some of the most lethal conditions are also most frequently misdiagnosed, including meningitis, heart attack, and stroke.

Even conditions that on their own are less serious may be incorrectly treated if misdiagnosed, leading to injury or death from medical error. Medication error may also involve giving the correct medication, but in a dosage too low to be effective, or so high as to be lethal.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that the majority of emergency room medical errors are caused by human error. Researchers believe that adverse events caused by human error are often underreported, meaning that there are probably injuries and deaths caused by medical error and attributed to another cause. Patients and their families in those cases are unlikely to get justice for the harm done to them.

Protecting Yourself from ER Medical Error

Few people expect to need treatment in an emergency room, but as we all know, sudden injuries, illnesses, and accidents do happen. While you may not be able to predict when you will have to go to the ER, chances are good that you will find yourself seeking emergency treatment at some point. With a little forethought, you can reduce your risk of injury by medical error. Some simple measures you can take include:

  • Researching your local hospitals with emergency departments. Identify the hospital with the best record for patient safety, and specifically a good medical records system. Hospitals with poor records systems are much more likely to make medication errors. If you don’t know how to find this information, ask your doctor for information about local emergency rooms.
  • Carry an updated list of your medications, with dosages, in your wallet.
  • Ask your doctors, nurses, and other treating professionals to wash their hands before they touch you to reduce risk of infection (they should be doing this anyway).
  • Request a blood clot screening.
  • Don’t minimize your symptoms. If you don’t let your care team know what is going on, they may fail to give the proper attention to a serious condition. Don’t assume your doctors can know what’s wrong just by looking at you or by taking some blood tests. The information you provide is crucial.
  • If you can, avoid going to the emergency department on weekends (Friday evening through Sunday evening). Studies have found that patients admitted to the hospital on weekends had a higher risk of death than those who were admitted on weekdays. That may be because staffing is lower on the weekends or because the most experienced doctors are more likely to be given weekday shifts. HOWEVER, don’t fail to go to the ER if you have symptoms of a serious illness! Waiting until your doctor’s office opens on Monday morning to seek care may be much more dangerous than a weekend trip to the ER.

Last but not least, if you or a loved one have been injured by medical error in an emergency room, talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney. We can help you determine if you have a valid claim for your injuries.

Categories: Medical Malpractice