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What Are the 3 Most Common Types of Medical Malpractice?

It can be difficult to know what the 3 most common types of medical malpractice are because so many medical errors go unreported. Medical malpractice has contributed to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary injuries and death each year in the United States. According to one study, medical errors are the 3rd leading cause of death for Americans. 

To understand the most common types of medical malpractice, it is important to understand the types of medical errors, how they occur, and how they are reported. If you believe you or a loved one was injured because of medical malpractice, talk to a medical malpractice lawyer about getting compensation for your injuries. Contact Gilman and Bedigian today online or by phone at 800-529-6162.  

Most Common Fatal Medical Malpractice

According to a study by Johns Hopkins Medicine published in the BMJ, medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. The study estimates more than 250,000 deaths per year are due to medical errors. Other studies report as many as 1 in 10 deaths in the U.S. are attributable to medical malpractice. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the leading causes of death every year. For example, in 2013, the top 3 leading causes of death were:

  • Heart disease: 611,105 
  • Cancer: 584,881  
  • Chronic respiratory disease: 149,205 

If the 250,000 medical malpractice deaths were included, they would be the 3rd most common cause of death. As many as 10% of all U.S. deaths are due to medical errors. Without a clear number of what causes fatal and nonfatal medical mistakes, based on experience, a medical malpractice attorney reporting some of the most common claims for medical malpractice include: 

COVID-19 and the Most Common Medical Mistakes

The mortality rates changed a lot from 2019 to 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. In 2021, the CDC reported the leading causes of death were: 

  • Heart disease: 695,547
  • Cancer: 605,213
  • COVID-19: 416,893
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 224,935
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 162,890

However, because the CDC does not include causes of death related to medical malpractice, many of those listed deaths could have involved medical mistakes. For example, doctors make mistakes in cardiac health, which could have been reported as heart disease by the CDC. Similarly, there are incidents of medical errors involving cancer, COVID-19, and cerebrovascular disease.

Why are medical errors so common? Despite understanding more about what causes unnecessary medical injuries, the reported number of accidents and fatalities continues. According to Johns Hopkins researchers, most errors represent systemic problems, including:

  • Poorly coordinated care
  • Fragmented insurance networks
  • The absence or underuse of safety nets
  • Unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns that lack accountability.

Three Most Common Diagnostic Medical Malpractice

There is another more recent report on the most common misdiagnosis-related harms in medical malpractice—known as “The Big Three.” According to an article published in the journal Diagnosis, the big three diagnostic mistakes involve: 

  • Vascular events
  • Infections
  • Cancers

The study analyzed a large database of medical malpractice claims looking at the diagnostic errors. According to the researchers, diagnostic errors represented almost 29% of malpractice claims. However, the Big Three represented 74.1% of all high-severity cases, resulting in serious harm, permanent disability, or death. 

What exactly are diagnostic errors? According to the National Academy of Medicine, a diagnostic error is “the failure to

  • Establish an accurate and timely explanation of the patient’s health problem(s), or
  • Communicate that explanation to the patient.”

The diagnosis is one of the most important parts of professional medical care. The diagnosis establishes how the patient will be treated and the course of patient care. A lot of the education, training, testing, and experience of doctors is based on making a diagnosis. The diagnosis is based on several factors, including a physical examination, diagnostic tests, lab work, family history, and talking to the patient. 

A misdiagnosis can cause multiple complications. For example, if a patient comes in with one condition and is diagnosed with the wrong condition, they can receive improper care that causes additional harm. In addition, the patient’s underlying condition goes undiagnosed, leaving them without treatment. 

Cancer Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosed cancer accounted for the greatest number of high-severity cases. Diagnosing cancer is important before the cancer can be treated. The most commonly misdiagnosed cancers that resulted in serious harm included: 

The ability of patients to fight cancer and become cancer-free depends a lot on when the cancer is discovered. Early detection is key to treatment. Millions may have cancer without knowing. Some cancer can be detected using certain tests before the patient shows signs or symptoms of any harm. This includes screening tools, like a colonoscopy, breast exam, and skin examinations.

A delayed cancer diagnosis is one of the most serious types of diagnostic errors. When cancer is not detected when it should be the patient can go on for weeks, months, or years. During that time, the cancer can spread, move to other parts of the body (metastasize), and cause irreparable damage to the body. 

Cancer treatment can depend on the type of cancer, the extent of the cancer, the location of the cancer, and the individual patient. Types of cancer treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and a combination of other treatments. Diagnosing a patient with the wrong type of cancer can mean the treatment is misdirected or misguided and not as effective or helpful for the patient. 

Misdiagnosis of Vascular Disease

Vascular events involve the cardiovascular system, including the heart and blood vessels. Heart disease is the most common cause of death so it is no surprise that misdiagnosis of vascular disease accounts for so many malpractice deaths. Among the most common vascular event diagnostic errors are: 

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Venous thromboembolism
  • Aortic aneurysm and dissection
  • Arterial thromboembolism

The most common type of stroke is known as ischemic stroke. These account for almost 90% of stroke cases. This happens when blood vessels to the brain are blocked by a clot, usually from fatty tissue buildup or a clot that travels from another part of the body. Timely diagnosis of a stroke is one of the most important factors in recovery. 

Signs and symptoms of a stroke may include:

  • numbness or weakening on one side of the face, arms, or legs
  • Sudden vision problems in one or both eyes
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden severe headache without injury or known cause
  • Sudden dizziness, difficulty walking, loss of balance and coordination

One issue is that some of the symptoms may look like other conditions. Doctors for patients complaining of a bad headache or dizziness may tell the patient it is something less serious, like a migraine, or caused by stress. Some patients who suffer a stroke are even sent home and told to come back if symptoms get worse, only to suffer permanent brain damage or death. 

Confusion or difficulty speaking and loss of coordination in some patients can be explained away as someone being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or even old age. Delayed diagnosis, misdiagnosis, or failure to diagnose a patient with a stroke, heart attack, or other vascular event can have tragic consequences.

With all signs of a stroke, some of the symptoms, or no symptoms, doctors are often put on notice of the possibility of a stroke based on the patient’s health conditions. Risk factors for stroke include: 

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes

Infection Misdiagnosis

The last of the Big Three diagnostic-related medical malpractice cases involves infection. When a patient presents with signs of a possible infection, it is important to diagnose the right type of infection. Infection treatment options can include surgery, medication, antibiotics, topical treatments, wound dressing, and other treatments. The most common claims for infection misdiagnosis involved: 

  • Sepsis
  • Meningitis and encephalitis
  • Spinal infection
  • Pneumonia
  • Endocarditis

Sepsis is a serious, life-threatening condition that happens when the body’s inflammatory immune response to infection causes injury to body tissues and organs. Sepsis can cause septic shock, where the cells, tissue, and organs of the body do not get the oxygen and blood supply they need to function. This can cause organ failure, cell death, brain damage, and death. Signs of sepsis can include a fever, low blood pressure, increased heart rate, and difficulty breathing. Blood tests can identify the type of bacteria, virus, or fungus.

Pneumonia is an infection that is common but can be deadly. Pneumonia can be most serious for young children and older people. Pneumonia is the 3rd most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. Some of the most common diagnostic tools for pneumonia include a chest X-ray and blood tests. Pneumonia should be timely diagnosed and treated or it can result in serious injuries. 

Endocarditis is an infection in the heart. Infective endocarditis is most commonly caused by a bacterial infection that travels through the blood into the heart, attacking the heart chambers or valves. It can cause growths in the heart and break down heart tissue. People at risk of endocarditis include people with acquired valve disease, artificial heart valve recipients, suppressed immune systems, or drug abuse. If endocarditis is not properly diagnosed and treated, it is fatal.  

Hospital-Associated Infections

Proper sanitation and sterilization are also important with infections because many patients come into a healthcare situation without an infection and get infected in the hospital. These are known as hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). Medical malpractice cases for HAIs are not necessarily related to misdiagnosis. These injuries can be caused by improper sanitation procedures, hospital staff not properly cleaning equipment and hands, and failure to sanitize surgical materials. 

Most Common Sentinel Events Reported

Another problem with understanding the scope of malpractice involves how the medical errors are categorized. The Joint Commission is a nonprofit organization that accredits healthcare organizations and hospitals. The commission defines a “sentinel event” as:

  • “Any unexpected occurrence involving death or serious physical or psychological injury, or the risk thereof.” 

This includes any variation in a medical process that would carry a significant chance of a serious adverse outcome. According to the Joint Commission, the most commonly reviewed sentinel event types include: 

  1. Falls
  2. Unintended Retention of a Foreign Object (URFO) 
  3. Suicide 
  4. Wrong Surgery 
  5. Delay in Treatment

For example, if a patient suffers a fall injury in a hospital, it often involves failure to follow proper fall-prevention procedures. Patients can be at risk of a fall in a hospital after surgery, mental health conditions, or the effects of medication. Patients with a fall risk should be protected from injuries caused by falls while walking around the hospital or getting out of bed. Preventable fall injuries can be caused by failure to:  

  • Identify patients with high fall risk
  • Set bed alarms
  • Do safety rounds
  • Lock bed wheels
  • Provide grab bars and assistive devices
  • Use non-skid materials
  • Communicate fall risk to staff, patients, and family members

How Do You Know If Your Doctor Made a Mistake?

After looking at some of these most common types of medical malpractice, many patients believe they were a victim of malpractice because of a similar medical error. However, there are dozens of other common types of medical malpractice that may not have been included above, including birth injuries, lack of informed consent, and medication errors. 

Doctors don’t always admit to patients when they make a mistake. You may have to go to someone experienced in identifying medical errors to find out if your doctor caused your injuries. An experienced medical malpractice attorney can review your case and let you know your options. If you suspect a medical malpractice injury, your attorney can file a medical malpractice lawsuit so you can get the answers you’re looking for. 

A medical malpractice case can also help you get financial compensation for your medical bills, follow-up care, future medical care, lost wages, emotional distress, and pain and suffering. A malpractice award can also help improve care for others by making doctors and hospitals make changes to protect other patients in the future. 

To understand your malpractice case, contact an experienced medical malpractice law firm for legal advice about your rights. A medical malpractice attorney can review your case and help you understand what went wrong and who was responsible. With an experienced attorney on your side, you can recover the maximum damages for your injuries. Contact a law firm that handles medical malpractice cases like yours. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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