Making a mistake can be much more serious in some jobs than in others. If a pilot makes an error, it could increase the risk of a fatal crash. When a logging worker makes a mistake, it could be fatal to themselves or other logging workers. When a doctor makes a mistake, it can cause serious injury or death for a patient.
Doctors can make minor mistakes that do not cause any harm but more serious mistakes can be fatal. There may be several causes of medical errors by doctors and other medical professionals. Potential causes of medical mistakes should be addressed to reduce the risk of injury and death for patients.
This page provides an overview of possible causes of medical errors. If you want to know more about filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, contact an experienced medical malpractice law firm to get more information.
How Common are Medical Errors?
Medical malpractice is a breach of the doctor’s duty of patient care that causes an injury and harm. When a doctor deviates from the standards of medical care and it causes injury to the patient, the doctor may be responsible for any damages. The patient can file a medical malpractice lawsuit to recover compensation for their injuries.
One of the problems with knowing the causes of medical mistakes is that the extent of medical errors may be underreported. According to a study by Johns Hopkins researchers, there are more than 250,000 deaths in the U.S. every year due to medical malpractice. With over 250,000 malpractice deaths each year, medical errors would be the 3rd leading cause of death, just after heart disease and cancer.
Medical errors may be underreported because doctors may be hesitant to come forward after they’ve made a mistake. Doctors may be afraid they will be financially responsible, could lose their job, or harm their reputations. Instead, the injury victim and their family have to live with the consequences of an avoidable injury, just because the doctor doesn’t want to admit they did anything wrong.
Eight Causes Why Doctors Make Errors
Causes of medical errors can include individual problems with the doctor as well as systemic problems with the health care system. Some of the causes of medical errors in the U.S. include:
- Surgical errors
- Anesthesia errors
- Diagnostic errors
- Hospital-associated infections (HAIs)
- Handoff and documentation errors
- Doctor burnout
- Delayed treatment
Surgical errors can be some of the most common causes of medical errors that result in serious harm or injury. Surgery always has some level of risk, including the risk of infection. However, when a doctor makes a mistake, it can increase the level of risk beyond what the patient was warned about. Types of surgical errors can include:
- Surgical site infection
- Wrong site surgery
- Wrong patient surgery
- Wrong procedure
- Anesthesia errors
- Left-behind object
- Internal injuries
- Nerve damage
Some types of medical errors are known as “never events” because they are never supposed to happen unless there was negligence. Wrong site/side/patient/procedure surgeries are one example. A doctor could grab the chart for the wrong patient and end up performing an unnecessary surgery on a patient who was supposed to have a different procedure. How can this happen?
Proper checklist procedures before surgery can help prevent these problems. A checklist that confirms the patient, multiple patient identifiers, marking the surgery site, and other procedures can help reduce the risk of wrong patient injuries.
Causes of surgical errors can include medical distractions, doctors operating without enough sleep, improper handoff procedures, failure to use proper checklists, check-in, and check-out procedures, and even substance abuse problems.
Anesthesia is common in surgical procedures. Patients often trust their doctors to have a qualified doctor in place to administer anesthesia and monitor the patient. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Some surgical centers, including cosmetic surgery clinics, may not have all the safety protocols in place when a patient undergoes anesthesia.
Anesthesia involves powerful drugs and paralytics that can make the patient unconscious, feel no pain, and be immobilized. Heavy doses of anesthesia can require the patient to be put on a ventilator if they cannot maintain an open airway and lung function. Too much anesthesia can cause a patient to stop breathing or go into cardiac arrest. It only takes a few minutes without oxygen before the cells in the brain and other organs can begin to suffer damage.
Anesthesia errors can be caused by distracted doctors, facilities without proper equipment, failure to monitor patients’ vital signs, and use of unlicensed workers.
Doctors often use diagnostic tests to evaluate a patient’s health and physical conditions. Diagnostic imaging can include X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans. These diagnostic images are generally interpreted by a qualified doctor or radiologist. Radiologists diagnose medical conditions and treat patients using a variety of imaging methods.
If a radiologist fails to identify suspicious areas of concern and report them to the patient or the patient’s doctor, it can allow dangerous conditions to go unreported. Diagnostic errors could cause a delay in cancer diagnosis, misdiagnosis, or end up with an injured patient going home from the hospital because they were told everything was okay, only to have things get worse and cause additional harm.
Diagnostic errors can be caused by doctors’ failure to get a consultation, doctor burnout, improper documentation, or even poor handwriting.
Some patients can be misdiagnosed by their doctors, leaving their actual diagnosis untreated. A misdiagnosis can cause harm in multiple ways, including getting unnecessary (and possibly harmful) treatment for a condition they do not have. At the same time, the actual condition can go untreated and undiagnosed, which could continue to worsen. Misdiagnosed conditions can include myocardial infarction (MI), stroke, and cancer.
Hospital-Acquired Infections (HAIs)
Many patients go to the hospital because of an infection. However, lots of patients end up with an infection after going to the hospital because of a healthcare-associated infection (HAI). Common infections for patients in healthcare facilities include pneumonia, surgical-site infection, gastrointestinal infection, urinary tract infection (UTI), and primary bloodstream infections.
The causes of HAIs in hospitals can include improper cleaning procedures, using contaminated instruments or equipment, or failure to properly sanitize surgical instruments. One survey found that there were more than 700,000 healthcare-associated infections in U.S. acute care hospitals in 2011.
Handoff and Documentation Errors
Doctors are expected to see increased numbers of patients for a shorter time. Increasing patient churn can be more profitable for doctors and hospitals. However, it may have the opposite impact on patient care. Doctors are supposed to properly document their observations, treatments, and diagnoses in the patient’s medical records. When a doctor leaves a patient’s care, they generally have to “hand off” the patient to the next doctor.
Failure to properly document medical care and lack of proper handoff procedures can leave a gap in the patient’s care that could cause serious injury. For example, if a doctor administered medication but did not document it, the next doctor may administer the medication because there was no record of it in the patient’s chart. This could double a dosage, potentially causing serious injury or death.
Care records have moved to electronic health record (EHR) documentation. Electronic records have reduced some problems, such as interpreting bad handwriting and maintaining an audit trail. However, some doctors complain about the additional administrative burdens of electronic records, which could increase doctor burnout.
According to the American Medical Association (AMA), “physician burnout is defined as a long‑term stress reaction characterized by depersonalization. Doctor burnout can be a cause of many types of medical errors. Burnout can be caused by stress, changing healthcare needs, increased administrative responsibilities, productivity pressure, problems dealing with insurance companies, and lack of proper staffing.
Some areas of medicine may be more likely to have burned-out doctors, including emergency room doctors, family medicine, physical medicine, and urology. When a doctor is aware they are not providing proper care because of burnout, they need to reach out for help. A burned-out doctor that fails to provide the standard of care can cause serious injury or harm to a patient.
Delayed treatment can be another cause of medical errors. Many patients are frustrated with how long it takes to see a doctor. Doctor and specialist appointments can be booked up for months. Patients may have no alternative but to go to urgent care, emergency care, or simply give up trying to see a doctor. In some cases, delayed treatment can be medical malpractice when the delay if the doctor did not address serious health concerns.
Study on Medical Errors by Doctors
There have been a number of studies trying to identify how common medical errors may be and the most common causes of medical errors. Unfortunately, the actual numbers are much harder to know and researchers have to rely on the data available. The actual number may be much higher than reported.
According to one study, there are over 400,000 hospitalized patients who experience some type of preventable health harm every year. The Joint Commission is a nonprofit that evaluates patient safety in healthcare institutions. According to the Joint Commission’s 2022 National Patient Safety Goals, the following goals are highlighted to improve patient safety and avoid preventable harm:
- Improve the accuracy of patient identification.
- Improve the effectiveness of communication among caregivers.
- Improve the safety of using medications.
- Reduce patient harm associated with clinical alarm systems.
- Reduce the risk of health care-associated infections.
- Reduce the risk of patient harm resulting from falls.
- Prevent health care-associated pressure ulcers (decubitus ulcers).
- Conduct a pre-procedure verification process to avoid wrong site, wrong procedure, and wrong person surgery.
A “sentinel event” is defined as: “any unexpected occurrence involving death or serious physical or psychological injury, or the risk thereof.” The Joint Commission uses reporting on sentinel events from their accredited organizations to address serious errors within a healthcare organization. Reporting includes:
- Types of Sentinel Event
- Settings of Sentinel Events
- Sources for Sentinel Event Identification
- Sentinel Event Outcomes
- Self-reported Sentinel Events by Year
- Method for Review of Healthcare Organization Response to Sentinel Event
How Much Will a Medical Malpractice Lawyer Cost?
Unfortunately, many people are under the false impression that they can’t afford to hire a medical malpractice lawyer. When people don’t have a lot of money they may think they can’t afford a good medical malpractice law firm. However, most medical malpractice lawyers won’t require you to pay anything upfront.
Lawyers can work on different fee arrangements. Medical malpractice lawyers that represent injury victims generally use a contingency fee basis. A contingency fee means that you only pay if your lawyer wins your case or recovers a settlement. A contingency arrangement allows individuals without a lot of money to take their cases against big healthcare companies and insurance companies and make sure they get fair compensation.
With a contingency fee agreement, after your lawyer recovers the settlement or jury award, the fee will be based on a percentage of the amount recovered. This means you can generally file your malpractice lawsuit without paying anything out of pocket. Do not let financial concerns stop you from getting justice. If you want to know about a contingency agreement for your lawsuit, contact a medical malpractice attorney.
Time to Call a Medical Malpractice Lawyer
Now that you know a little more about what causes doctors to make errors, you can get answers about your case. If you believe something went wrong or the doctor made a mistake during a medical procedure that caused injuries, pain, or disability, you may be able to get money for your losses. Make a call to an experienced medical malpractice attorney in your area to get the support you need to recover money damages from the negligent doctor.
Call experienced medical malpractice attorneys who can look at your case, answer your questions, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim against a doctor or hospital after a medical error. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.