A landmark study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2016 found that medical error is the third-most-common cause of death in the U.S., following heart disease and cancer. Researchers in the Hopkins study estimated that around 250,000 people die each year because of medical mistakes. The problem is, the Centers for Disease Control does not list medical error as a cause of death in their yearly national health statistics. Of course, mistakes made by medical personnel are not always fatal, but they may lead to ongoing health issues or complications down the road.


A 2017 Mayo Clinic study found that only 12% of patients seeking a second opinion were diagnosed correctly by their primary care physician. The doctors offering the second opinion said 80% of those patients left their offices with a refined or completely new diagnosis. Misdiagnosis prevents physicians from prescribing accurate treatment plans and providing quality health care. It can also lead to delayed treatment for a condition that was initially preventable or curable.

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Hospital-Acquired Infections

According to an American Journal of Infection Control study, nearly seven million individuals acquire infections during hospitalization while undergoing treatment for another condition. The two most common infections are urinary tract and surgical site infections. Studies show that fatigued physicians and medical staffs experience burnout resulting from heavy patient loads, and this can lead to mistakes that cause infections. If doctors and staff avoid the overuse of catheters, properly clean the skin where they insert a catheter or central line, practice correct handwashing techniques, and wear protective clothing when appropriate, they can avoid or prevent 70% of these infections.

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Medication Errors

Also known as adverse drug events (ADE), medication errors account for more than one million trips to the emergency room each year and nearly four million physician office visits. While most injuries from medications occur in outpatient settings, the average hospitalized patient experiences at least one medication error each day, often leading to incorrect dosages and overdoses. Individuals with chronic health conditions who see several physicians each year are at particularly high risk for error. Anticoagulants, opioids, insulin, and anti-diabetic agents top the list of incorrectly prescribed medications.

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Surgical Errors

A majority of hospital malpractice claims are due to surgical errors. A Mayo Clinic study found that nine percent of U.S. surgeons reported that they made a medical error within the previous three months. Experienced, well-trained surgeons have performed surgery on the wrong body part, performed an incorrect procedure, or operated on the wrong patient. Incorrect information on the patient’s chart and other errors can occur before the patient gets to the operating room. Nerve damage, punctured organs, and leaving objects such as surgical sponges inside the patient are all possible.

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Anesthesia Errors

Although it is rare, the stories are true: patients can experience anesthesia awareness, where they wake up during surgery. Although the individual is aware of their surroundings and can recall specific details, they don’t usually feel any pain, but the event can be traumatizing. Issues with anesthesia may be the result of a physician’s failure to analyze medical history and physical examination, to perform diagnostic tests, or fail to monitor the individual properly during the procedure. Dosage miscalculations on the part of the anesthesiologist can result in a lack of oxygen, which has led to brain damage and even death.

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Physicians are under constant pressure not to miss anything during diagnostic evaluation. This often results in overzealous treatment and unnecessary prescriptions. For example, around 30% of people with an asthma diagnosis do not have the disease. In other cases, some doctors opt for surgery, despite knowing it will not improve their patient’s condition. Unnecessary scans and tests seldom benefit the patient, and they can be costly. Doctors have performed thousands of breast, thyroid, and prostate cancer screenings each year, which led to more treatments but did significantly reduce fatalities.

overtreatment diagnostic screening

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Failure to Follow Up on Testing Results

If a doctor orders tests but fails to follow up on the results, the patient can become seriously ill. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, a man’s biopsy came back as positive for prostate cancer, but workers misplaced lab results; no one — including the physician or his staff —followed up. Medical software options can flag issues such as failure to follow up on lab and diagnostic imaging results. Medical communities say this is one way to decrease these mistakes.

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Inexperience and Age-Related Issues

Professional licensing boards require some physicians, such as specialists in internal medicine, to pass a maintenance certification every few years. The goal is to encourage physicians to stay current with medical technologies and knowledge. According to 2018 research, the largest number of U.S. physicians are between 55 and 65 years old, with 17% over 65. Around 20,000 new physicians join the medical community each year. Studies show that some patient treatment errors are due not only to inexperienced physicians but also to higher physician age. Older doctors may lack the latest clinical knowledge or fail to adhere to new medical guidelines. As the American population ages, there is more demand for medical care, and physician shortages are expected to intensify.

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Overuse of Diagnostic Imaging

Although most medical imaging procedures have a low risk of side effects, some medical industry researchers are concerned with patient exposure to radiation. The accuracy and availability of diagnostic imaging may lead doctors to overuse these tests. Imaging accounts for more than $100 billion of U.S. healthcare costs. Medical industry analysts say that about ten percent of these diagnostic procedures are unnecessary. More significant, however, is the fact that these procedures expose individuals to ionizing radiation. Human tissue can absorb this type of radiation, and children and young adults are at greater risk of resulting illness.

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Communication Failures

A common complaint from patients about their physicians is that the doctor doesn’t listen or explains things using terminology the patient does not understand. This can lead to a variety of errors, including inaccurate medication dosages or disregard of pertinent information from the patient’s medical history. But those aren’t the only ways doctors fail when it comes to communicating with patients and medical staff. Late diagnoses, failure to alert other attending physicians and medical staff of pertinent information, and illegible handwriting also open the doors for medical errors.

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