Medical research makes progress each day; scientists understand—and are battling back—an ever-increasing variety of diseases. Unfortunately, for each step forward in patient care, we also take a step back, thanks to medical malpractice.
Mistakes do happen. But many medical errors are preventable, and many tragic consequences need never happen. The statistics are stunning: A landmark 1999 study found that every year, some 98,000 hospital deaths are due to medical errors. A follow-up study in 2006 revealed that medication errors alone harm at least 1.5 million patients annually.
While skilled medical malpractice lawyers—like Miami injury lawyers Grossman Roth, P.A.—have helped obtain accountability and compensation for many victims of medical error, it would be ideal to avoid medical malpractice in the first place.
The fact that there are a great many types of preventable medical errors complicates matters. Battling these is no simple task. Patients themselves can help by learning to be more vigilant in questioning a doctor’s treatment. Through understanding what the most common errors are, patients can play a key role in avoiding the serious, and wholly unnecessary, consequences that have harmed so many patients before them.
Information for any patient is empowering. With that in mind, here are the most common types of medical malpractice (in no particular order of preference):
• Misdiagnosis. A patient is treated for one condition when he or she actually suffers from another. This is often the result of health care professionals misreading test results and
symptoms—an all too frequent occurrence when doctors are rushed or sleep deprived. The consequences can be severe—and at times deadly. According to a 2009 analysis, the five most common misdiagnosed conditions are infection, neoplasm, myocardial infarction, pulmonary emboli and cardiovascular disease.
• Wrong-Site Surgery. It happens far more often than most patients think: A healthy kidney is removed while the damaged one is left untouched; the left arm is mistakenly marked for amputation when the right arm should have been removed. Again, results can be catastrophic, frequently leaving patients severely crippled or direly ill.
• Medication Errors. According to a 2006 study, medication errors cause some 400,000 preventable injuries each year in hospitals. Another 800,000 injuries occur while patients are in long-term care, and Medicare recipients in outpatient clinics suffer another 530,000 or so injuries due to medication errors.
• Failure to Monitor Patients Properly After Treatment. The surgery seemed successful, and the patient appears to be resting in the recovery room. What in fact is happening, though, is that he’s had a reaction to one of his medications, and his heart rate is dropping. Because of lax monitoring, this is not noticed until it is too late—and the patient has passed away.
• Delay in Treatment. A mother-to-be arrives at the hospital with frequent contractions. The hospital staff notices the baby’s decreasing heart rate, but instead of rushing the mother in for an emergency C-section, doctors and nurses monitor the situation for an hour. As a result, the baby suffers severe and permanent brain injuries. Such a dangerous delay in treatment isn’t limited to the maternity ward. It can occur—with tragic consequences—in any medical specialty.
• Inadequate Follow-up After Treatment. The patient complains of pain after outpatient surgery. The doctor advises her to take Advil and get some rest. By morning, the discomfort level has increased. Again, the doctor advises rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. By evening, when the patient is rushed to the emergency room, it is clear that a severe complication from the surgery has resulted—one that could and should have been more effectively treated had the patient been examined earlier.
• Failure to Take a Proper Medical History Before Treatment. Prior to surgery, a doctor or nurse fails to ask the patient about allergic reactions to common drugs. So the wrong anesthetic is used—and the patient lapses into a nonreversible coma.
• Failure to Act on Test Results. A doctor orders tests, which are quickly carried out and reported. But the doctor gets sidetracked or goes home for the day, and doesn’t look at the results promptly—missing a serious problem that could and should have been treated immediately. Instead of receiving lifesaving urgent care, the patient’s condition deteriorates—even fatally.
• Failure to Use Standard Tests Appropriate to the Circumstances. A common example: The patient arrives in the emergency room complaining of chest pain. The physician diagnoses her with indigestion—never doing an EKG or ordering cardiac enzymes, tests that could quickly point to heart trouble. The patient is sent home when she needed immediate treatment, and she suffers a fatal heart attack hours later.
• Technical Errors. These are the preventable mistakes that happen in the course of treatment. For example, a surgeon nicks an artery or vital organ during an operation. While the damage can sometimes be repaired quickly, many times it cannot—and the consequences can be dire.
• Communication Errors. A general practitioner sends his patient to a specialist. While treating one problem, the specialist discovers another—a tumor. The specialist says nothing to the patient, expecting and assuming that the general practitioner will tell her about the tumor, then treat it and follow up. However, the doctors never speak, and the specialist’s report recording discovery of the tumor is simply sent to the GP’s office and filed away in the patient’s chart. Months or years pass and the patient, now deathly ill, appears back in the general practitioner’s office. The staff finds the buried report. But it is too late for treatment, and the patient ends up paying the ultimate price. In another case, a nurse is charged with being the eyes and ears of a doctor in his absence. She is responsible for monitoring a hospitalized patient and notifying the doctor of significant developments. She does neither. By the time the doctor comes around to check, the patient’s condition has deteriorated irreversibly, and the doctor is unable to save him. Good communication is an essential component of successful medical care. Without it, as in these and far too many other cases, the consequences can be tragic.
Ultimately, the ability to prevent or enable these medical errors rests with individual doctors or the medical staff. But patients can be their own best advocates—and protectors.
Patients need to ask their health care professionals questions about their care and recovery, and check the credentials of the hospitals and providers they are considering. They should also scrutinize the reviews and comments, not always positive, left on the growing number of websites that aggregate patient feedback.
These steps won’t prevent medical malpractice, but they can help stem the flow and make sure that at least some preventable medical errors are actually prevented.