Medical Errors: What Does That Mean?

Why are there Medical Errors?

This question seems to be an easy question to answer, at least superficially. There are mistakes that happen every day and in every line of work. Mistakes often lead to improved technology, processes, improved training and resources, and increased staffing.

In most circumstances, we would like to say that most mistakes are unavoidable. I thinks this helps us sleep better at night. But, often, that is not the truth and in medicine that is no different.  And when a serious mistake happens in medicine, someone might lose their life. That is a scary situation for both the patient and the doctor.

Medical Errors leading to death are estimated to be approximately 250,000 every year. This number can’t and won’t include the number of medical errors overall. Some years, that number is higher, and some years that number is lower. Some errors are indeed very minor, yet others, can lead to a loss of life or something equally serious.  This means, that Medical Errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

There are others who are saying that we are missing half of the overall deaths directly related to medical errors – there estimates are near 450,000.

We need to ask ourselves a few questions:

1.)  Do we hold Doctors, Nurses, and other Medical professionals to a higher standard?

2.)  What should happen with Medical Errors occur?

3.)  Are medical Errors preventable?

There are a number of stories that speak to the lives lost from medical errors. Reading or hearing these heartbreaking stories can be very difficult and the blame can easily be doled out without much further thought.  Errors can be from an allergic reaction, to a mistake during surgery, to a wrong medication is given, to a wrong patient, and much more.

As I have spoken with patients or individuals, the question most often asked is: How could this have happened?

We expect Doctors and Medical staff to be perfect or close to. We often fail to understand the complexities of medicine. Our lack of medical knowledge doesn’t allow us to completely understand the situation.

Those answers only half solve the problem.

Personally, I see the following: Often Doctors go too fast. We see this in our visits to the Emergency room, our own Doctor visits. Sometime, the wrong chart is brought in or they forget what medication I am allergic to.

There are certainly some mistakes (medical errors) that are unavoidable, but some mistakes are not.

Let’s take a closer look at what kinds of mistakes are seen in Hospitals and Medical clinics.

What are the main causes of medical error?

–  Problems with the processing of Information
–  Problems with verifying information
–  Inadequate knowledge of the problem
–  Inadequate information gathered
–  Misjudging how significant something was and/or prematurely deciding on an incorrect diagnosis
–  Inadequate staff
–  Error in judgement or Care
–  System Defect
–  Communication Errors
–  And More

How Can we fix the problem?

Training and Technology seem to be at the forefront of decreasing medical errors. As we strive to improve the training for everyone who provides patient care from the Doctor, to the nurse, to the tech, to the secretaries. Training can help double and triple check charts, procedures, allergies and much more.

Technology will help save lives. The electronic medical record is the backbone of medicine. It keeps most of the medical history, current medications, and much more of the patient.

Dr. David Classen an associate professor of medicine at the University of Utah has discussed potential improvements to the problems. He said, “The system of care is fragmented. Any tools that enable patients to manage their health-care needs will be a game changer.” To improve the safety of medication use, Classen developed and implemented a computerized physician order-entry program at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. “Harnessing health information technology through the use of electronic health records of hospitalized and ambulatory patients is essential,” he said.

What Should patients do to Protect Themselves?

1.) Ask Questions

Questions will help you better understand what is going on. These questions shouldn’t necessarily be phrased as to put the Doctor on the defensive. But rather, so that the proper information is being processed.

2,)  Understand your conditions

Research your medical conditions and know what is generally going on. New medical information may be helpful or hurtful to your own medical care. Understand where you are going with your care.

3.)  Bring along your medical history

Previous medical visits, information, evaluation processes and more are essential to future care and treatment options.

4.)  Seek a second opinion (when applicable)

Sometimes, a second opinion is warranted and should be done to ensure your care is exactly what needs to be done. If you are going through emergency surgery, this may not be an option. Nor might it be for the Flu or Diabetes medication refills. Each case is different.

5.)  Bring an Advocate

Sometimes we are given bad or difficult news. We might miss a large portion of follow up procedure, medication side effects, and more. A second set of eyes or ears can help when we are no longer in the hospital or the Doctor’s office.

6.)  Download an app.

There are several apps that can help us understand what exactly is going on. If the doctor suggests a medication, you can look it up, and better know what to expect and what you are getting yourself in.


Medical Errors overall will happen. As much as you or I want to ensure that no one suffers from an error, that is not possible. But what can happen, is the medical community and the patients can come together in communication and improve the way medicine is delivered. Errors happen, but that doesn’t give a free pass for laziness, arrogance, or unwillingness to change. We all need to get better, from the providers, to hospitals, to the patients. Together, we can make significant improvement.

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