The Dangers of Medical Errors and Why They Happen

Medical errors can vary in severity, impact, and type. A mistake can occur when the wrong medication or dosage is given, a surgery isn’t done properly, when lab results are misinterpreted, or when a doctor misdiagnoses a patient. In fact, new research indicates that one out of five patients with serious conditions are misdiagnosed.

Why medical errors happen.

Obviously, the risk of these medical errors or preventable adverse events (PAEs) is of great concern to patients, their families, and the medical community. The Journal of Patient Safety report separates the cause of these medical errors into the following categories:

  • Errors of commission – When a mistaken action harms a patient either because it was the wrong action or it was the right action but performed improperly.
  • Errors of omission – When an obvious action was necessary to heal the patient, yet it was not performed at all.
  • Errors of communication – Can occur between 2 or more providers or between providers and patient.
  • Errors of context – When a physician fails to take into account unique constraints in a patient’s life that could bear on successful, post-discharge treatment.
  • Diagnostic errors – When treatment is delayed, the wrong treatment is given, or no effective treatment is provided

Patient involvement and education could be a key to reducing medical errors.

Knowing your rights as a patient, educating yourself, effectively discussing your symptoms, and making sure you receive adequate medical care can help reduce the number of errors and related deaths. Ultimately, though, hospital accountability is the most important solution. Patients can’t avoid the medical errors which medical staff should have prevented in the first place.

Hospital education, staffing, communication, and teamwork need to be addressed.

Steven Michaud, President of the Maine Hospital Association, has said that his organization’s main mission is to continually educate medical staff about best practices used in hospitals statewide to eliminate harm to patients.

Other issues he has noticed are the complexity doctors and nurses face when they handle computer records; one of the biggest complaints he receives from patients is that doctors spend more time looking at their computers than they do at their patients. This is punctuated by understaffing, which can require that practitioners spend more time taking notes than on optimizing their patients’ care. Unfortunately, like other states, Maine’s need for doctors is expected to increase with our aging population as nearly a third of active physicians in Maine are age 60 and older.

To pay more attention to patients, some doctors include their patients in their care by letting them look at computer screens with them or have staff transcribe notes while doctors see their patients.

The need for physicians who can effectively work on teams with other medical staff is another important consideration. Dr. Dora Anne Mills, Vice President for Clinical Affairs and Director of the Center for Health Innovation at the University of New England, says that 80 percent of medical errors are due to poor team work. In the TeamSTEPPS program at UNE, students in 15 health profession degree programs learn how to communicate with their peers and are also taught parts of their programs to help them gain a greater understanding of their roles. They’re then assembled at clinical sites throughout Maine. Mills says this learning process is at the forefront nationally and has helped improve teamwork at those sites, which ultimately could help reduce the number of medical errors.

For more information, Listen to “Medical Error,” a 2016 Maine Calling segment on Maine Public Radio.

Mills told the Portland Press Herald in their May 2016 article that medical errors are “one of the biggest public health problems we have. People who go into health care do it generally because they want to help others. The people are good, people’s intentions are good, but the system is broken.”

Patients have the right to quality healthcare.

Staff shortages, less time spent on patient care, critical communications breakdowns, and cost-cutting are among the biggest factors in medical errors, resulting in harm, injury or death. In the legal world, negligent hospital care is known as medical malpractice and medical malpractice law makes it possible for patients to recover compensation when doctors fall short of the accepted professional standard of care.

As a patient, you have the right to quality and responsible care from the healthcare providers and institutions you trust. But, the sad truth is, medical errors and failures happen all too frequently, and the results can be catastrophic.

Arm yourself with knowledge

Click on the links below to explore these additional resources.