Medical Mistakes: A Growing Issue of Public Health

Recently NBC News published an online report citing research that points to medical errors as the third leading cause of death in this country, just behind cancer and heart disease.

The numbers are staggering – between 200,000 and 400,000 deaths are directly related to medical mistakes, the most common being administering the wrong dosage of a medication, surgical errors, failure to diagnose or misdiagnosis. Estimates show that since 1999 the number of people dying from medical errors has quadrupled!

What does this mean? People are dying from the care they receive rather than from the medical problem for which they seek care. Another frightening fact based on a 2015 report is that most people in this country will receive a diagnosis in their lifetime that is either wrong or late.

And errors just don’t occur in a hospital, frequently they occur in clinics, surgery centers, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, pharmacies, even the homes of patients.

But no one knows the exact toll taken by this serious threat to public health, primarily due to the coding system employed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to record death certificate data. The CDC’s system doesn’t capture things like communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors and poor judgment that cost lives, a recent study by John Hopkins Medicine revealed. Authors of the study urge the CDC to immediately add medical errors to its annual list reporting the top causes of death.

When a medical error occurs – resulting in injury or death – the question of medical malpractice becomes a topic of discussion. Does the mistake amount to medical malpractice? First, a definition is in order. Medical malpractice is professional negligence by act or omission by a health care provider in which the treatment provided falls below the accepted standard of practice in the medical community and causes injury or death to the patient, with most cases involving medical error. Although a ‘health care provider’ usually refers to a physician, the term includes any medical care provider, including dentists, nurses, and therapists.

The bottom line here is that medical errors are preventable. And there is much the patient can do to protect him or herself such as:

• Ensuring all physicians are aware of all medicines you are taking.
• Making sure you can read the prescription a doctor gives you.
• Making sure you have a prescribed treatment plan when you are discharged from the
hospital.
• Speaking up with questions or concerns.
• Having a family member accompany you to appointments.

The NBC report is available online.

by Atty. Richard Abrams