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In a 1999 study conducted by the Institute of Medicine, entitled “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System”, the authors discovered that harm to patients due to errors of commission or omission occurred in between 2.9 and 3.7 percent of hospital admissions, with between 9.8 and 15.7 percent of those errors leading to death. In real numbers, between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths occur annually due to medical error.
This number is greater than the number of deaths from car accidents or breast cancer. Some medical errors make headlines, such as when a surgeon operates on the wrong knee, or if a child dies due to administering the wrong medication. Other errors occur daily and go unnoticed, unreported, and unaddressed by the medical community. Beyond the human cost, the cost to the health care industry ranges from 17 to 29 billion dollars annually, with that cost spread equally between health care and settlement costs. A number of the most common errors are described below.
In some instances, something as simple as poor handwriting on a prescription pad can result in a pharmacist or hospital staff member administering the wrong drug or wrong dosage of the correct drug. Drug interactions have several "filters" before getting to the patient. Both the physician and the issuing pharmacist have an obligation to validate that the prescribed medication will not have an adverse interaction with any of the other medications. Nurses have an obligation to monitor hospital patients for potential adverse drug reactions, and should be free to question if they are aware of any potential bad drug interactions with patient medication. In spite of these precautionary measures, medication errors still occur. Medication errors can cause injury, extend a patient's hospital stay, and at worst result in death. It is estimated that medication errors cause over 7,000 deaths annually.
Diagnostic errors can include either a total failure to diagnose or a wrong diagnosis. A failure to diagnose is sometimes referred to in the medical community as a "No-Fault Error" where the disease is asymptomatic or presents the symptoms of a much more common condition. Systemic errors occur when some aspect of the medical system introduces error into the process. Common example of systemic errors include transcription errors on lab results, poor handling techniques, inadequate equipment, and failure of staff to alert physicians to report results in a timely manner.
Finally, and most commonly, are cognitive errors or poor physician decisions. These bad decisions can be based on bad data collection, bad symptom interpretation, flawed reasoning or incomplete knowledge. These can often be traced back to physicians lacking knowledge outside their specialty, failing to follow diagnostic protocols, or failing to consult specialists early in a treatment cycle. Diagnostic errors often fall on a physician's shoulders, although incorrect or incomplete data from nursing and support staff can be a contributing factor.
Unfortunately, errors occur all too often during surgery. They range from leaving sponges or instruments inside a patient to performing the wrong surgery. Surgical errors have a number of different sources, including fatigue, miscommunication, or outright recklessness. Surgical errors can cause significant pain and suffering, requiring the need for repeated follow-up surgeries, with each surgery leaving a patient prone to infection and other risks. In the worst case scenario, surgical errors lead to death.
These errors happen when a patient's record is misplaced. If a chart is switched accidentally, a patient can receive the wrong treatment, leaving their actual medical condition untreated. This can lead to serious side effects, or even death. Recorded events for this type of error include wrongfully receiving chemotherapy and wrong surgical treatments. Failure to properly account for charts can occur from nursing understaffing. Regardless of how they occur, medical errors are often devastating for the patient and their loved ones. If you believe that you or a loved one has been the victim of a hospital error, a personal injury attorney can help you understand your rights.