Medical errors occur with surprising frequency. Every year, more than 250,000 U.S. deaths result from preventable medical errors, accounting for roughly 10% of all annual deaths in the country.

But what are medical errors exactly? What causes them, why do they occur, and what are the different types? The answers might surprise you.

What Are Medical Errors?

Medical errors are preventable mistakes that healthcare providers make. These mistakes tend to negatively impact patients at the present moment or sometime in the future and can range from the inaccurate evaluation or diagnosis of symptoms to the incorrect treatment of a condition, such as infections, injuries, and ailments among others. A medical error that doesn't harm a patient is sometimes called a close call, near miss, warning event, or potential adverse event.

Types of Medical Errors

Numerous errors typically occur in the medical field, and they are often linked to the specialty or practice area in question — from errors by anesthetists to psychologists. Certain medical errors tend to occur more often than others, though. These include medication errors, surgical errors, errors related to diagnosis, failure to diagnose, and providing unnecessary treatment.

Medication Error

A medication error occurs when a healthcare provider administers an incorrect dose of medication or the wrong medication altogether. These errors can lead to adverse events that jeopardize patient safety, particularly if the patient has an allergic reaction to the wrong medication or if the dose is administered at toxic levels. Between 7,000 and 9,000 deaths are attributed to medication errors in the U.S. each year, making this a serious public health concern. 

Wrong Dose Errors

A wrong dose error occurs when a healthcare provider fails to properly measure the amount of medication a patient needs, administering too high or too low of a dosage. Receiving too high a dosage may cause an overdose as toxic levels of the drug circulate through the patient's bloodstream. Conversely, an inappropriately low dosage brings risks, too, including undertreatment or non-treatment of pain. 

In patients with intractable pain, it can sometimes be challenging to find a doctor willing to prescribe the appropriate dosage of opiates that treat the condition. This is due to a growing resistance by many U.S. doctors against prescribing opiates, often referred to as opiophobia.

Administering the Wrong Medication

Sometimes the problem isn't with the dosage but rather what that dose contains. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for doctors to administer the wrong medication to their patients. This can have various potentially adverse side effects, from allergic reactions to negative interactions with other medications the patient is taking.

Administering the incorrect medication can seriously hurt patients, causing physical or psychological harm that can even result in death. 

Surgical Errors

Medical professionals are held to the highest standard of patient care. When there is a lapse in how these standards are carried out, the patient's safety is at risk, especially when surgical errors occur — the most glaring example of medical mistakes. A surgeon operating on the wrong side of a patient's body is one example of these types of mistakes. Performing the wrong surgery on a patient is another.

Some types of surgical errors, such as wrong-site surgeries and wrong-patient surgeries, are considered sentinel events. Sentinel events are the worst type of medical error. Though generally rare, there are numerous examples of surgical errors of this nature. In 2021, for example, an Ohio hospital announced that it had transplanted a kidney into the wrong patient. Unrelated to that case, in 2013, a patient who was scheduled to receive a left-sided craniotomy received it on the right side instead and was rendered unable to speak after the surgery.

Misdiagnosis or Failure To Provide an Accurate Diagnosis

Another medical error that occurs relatively frequently is misdiagnosis, or the failure to provide an accurate diagnosis. On average, significant diagnostic errors are found in between 10% and 20% of autopsies, suggesting that an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 people die every year from misdiagnosis. 

There are three major categories of misdiagnosis:

  • Delayed — the diagnosis should have occurred earlier.
  • Wrong — the original diagnosis is proven incorrect after the correct diagnosis is discovered.
  • Missed — the patient's medical complaints are never explained.

A doctor determining that a patient's persistent chest pain is likely caused by indigestion rather than the early stages of a heart attack is a good example of a misdiagnosis.

Failure To Diagnose

Also known as a missed diagnosis, a failure to diagnose occurs when a doctor or healthcare provider fails to properly identify a patient's symptoms. Even though the symptoms point to a specific condition, the doctor fails to make the connection, and the correct diagnosis is not reached. A doctor determining that a patient's headaches are caused by caffeine consumption rather than the early stages of a brain tumor is a good example. 

Even well-trained and highly experienced doctors can make diagnosis-related medical errors. In the U.S., roughly 12 million people are affected by medical diagnosis errors every year, with women and minorities 20% to 30% more likely to receive a misdiagnosis.

Providing Unnecessary Treatment

A doctor or healthcare provider may sometimes offer a patient an unnecessary treatment, like ordering extra tests or bloodwork samples that do not improve the overall diagnosis or treatment of the patient's condition. This seemingly additional layer of medical care is typically driven by a fear of malpractice, although health care fraud, diagnostic errors, and patient requests can also be contributing factors. A surgeon, for example, may offer parents the option to pierce their child's ears for an additional $1,800 while the child is under anesthesia for an alternate, necessary operation.

Unnecessary treatments can drive up medical costs and waste health care resources. About $700 billion — or a third of annual health care costs — is spent on unnecessary health care treatments in the U.S. every year.

Causes of These Common Errors

Medical mistakes are typically caused by human error and lack of communication amid a tremendous amount of activity at U.S. hospitals, where an estimated 40 to 50 million major surgeries take place each year. While smaller, clinics and medical practices are also prone to errors that can occur during regular check-ups and evaluations, where a patient, for instance, might be given the wrong prescription.

Human Error

Human error is the most common cause of medical mistakes. The chance for human error tends to increase when a doctor or healthcare provider is subject to certain conditions, such as stress, distraction, overload, lack of experience, lack of knowledge, and lack of sleep.

Considered a highly-preventable mishap in healthcare, human error can have potentially life-long effects on the patient.

Lack of Communication

Lack of communication in healthcare can have dire impacts. This lack of communication can be between your primary care physician, supporting medical staff, and you as the patient. Communication failures typically happen during shift changes. When there is a lack of proper communication at the changeover, it can increase the likelihood of medical errors.

What To Do if You've Experienced an Error in Your Medical Treatment

If you have experienced an error in your medical treatment, you should discuss your case with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. You may be eligible to receive damages to help compensate you for your medical expenses, loss of work, and pain and suffering. Contact Ratzan, Weissman & Boldt today.