Medical malpractice is another term for medical negligence. All doctors make mistakes but not every mistake constitutes medical malpractice. The civil justice system holds doctors accountable for avoidable mistakes that result from the doctor’s failure to follow the standard of care that other doctors who practice the same kind of medicine would have followed. As an example, if it is a standard practice for surgeons to count sponges so that they do not sew one up inside a patient, a surgeon who fails to count sponges commits malpractice if a sponge remains in a patient’s body after the surgery has been completed.
As much as we would like to hope that patients will never be injured by a doctor’s negligent care, the consensus among experts is that 40% to 50% of medical errors could have been avoided. Some research suggests that nearly all medical mistakes are preventable.
A shocking number of medical mistakes are fatal. One recent study estimated that 210,000 to 400,000 patients die every year as the result of medical malpractice. Other errors lead to lasting disabilities, shortened lifespans, and ongoing suffering.
Patients who are harmed by medical malpractice have the right to pursue a remedy. The compensation they might receive depends upon the severity of the harm due to their doctor’s negligence. To help you understand the problem of medical malpractice, here is a quick guide to common medical malpractice errors.
A medical diagnosis is the doctor’s identification of the cause of a patient’s disease or injury. For example, when a patient complains of pain in her arm, the doctor might diagnose a fractured bone as the cause of the pain based on an X-ray.
Since different diseases can produce similar symptoms, doctors must take care to make a correct diagnosis. Lupus, Parkinson’s, and Lyme disease are among the most commonly misdiagnosed illnesses.
Diagnostic errors — including the failure to diagnose a disease, misdiagnosing a disease, or making a delayed diagnosis — are estimated to occur in 10 to 20 percent of all cases in which doctors are responsible for diagnosing a patient’s condition. About 28% of diagnostic errors cause serious harm. In some cases, the failure to make a correct diagnosis prolongs an illness. In more extreme cases, such as a failure to diagnose cancer, a doctor’s mistake may delay treatment until it is too late to bring the disease under control.
Premature death and unnecessary suffering are the most tragic results of a diagnostic error. More than 40,000 patients admitted to intensive care, and as many as 80,000 patients in all, die each year due to diagnostic errors.
Sometimes a doctor will make the correct diagnosis but fail to treat the condition appropriately. That can happen when a doctor diagnoses a condition after reviewing lab tests but neglects to contact the patient with a recommended treatment plan. In other cases, doctors fail to keep abreast of current standards of care for the conditions they diagnose.
Mistakes in the prescription or administration of medication are among the most common examples of medical malpractice. A study of Medicare patients found that 31 percent of harmful events caused by medical errors involved the prescription or administration of medications.
Doctors make medication errors by prescribing the wrong medication to treat a condition, by prescribing a medication to which the patient has a known allergy, or by prescribing the wrong dose of a medication. A doctor can also commit malpractice by failing to monitor a patient’s use of a potentially dangerous drug (like Warfarin) to determine whether the dosage needs to be adjusted. Hospitals commit medical errors when staff members administer the wrong drug or give an incorrect dosage to a hospitalized patient.
Mistakes made during surgery can cause disease, disability, or death. Examples of surgical errors include:
- Inadvertently cutting an artery or damaging an organ, leading to internal bleeding or organ failure.
- Performing the wrong surgery, such as operating on the left knee when only the right knee was injured.
- Leaving surgical instruments or sponges inside the body.
- Causing an infection by using improperly sterilized instruments or operating in an environment that is not sterile.
- Depriving the brain of oxygen or making other mistakes in the administration of anesthesia.
- Giving a patient contaminated or incompatible blood during surgery.
Other kinds of errors discussed in this article, including medication errors and the failure to obtain informed consent, can also occur during surgical procedures.
Failure to Protect from Infections
The Center for Disease Control and Infections reports that 5 to 10 percent of all hospital patients acquire an infection during their stay. When the infection was preventable and the hospital failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent it (for example, by failing to inspect and maintain heating and cooling systems that are spreading bacteria), the hospital may be held liable for its negligence.
Failure to Obtain Informed Consent
Except in limited circumstances where emergency care is need to prevent death or serious injury, a doctor must obtain a patient’s informed consent before treating the patient. Consent means the patient agrees to the treatment. Informed consent means the patient is told of the risks involved in the proposed treatment before the patient agrees to undertake the treatment.
Malpractice occurs when a doctor performs surgery or undertakes any other course of treatment without the patient’s informed consent. A typical example includes a recommendation to undergo cosmetic surgery without alerting the patient to the complications that might arise from the surgery (such as the rupture of a saline breast implant).