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10 Most Common Medical Mistakes

Medical Negligence – Misdiagnosis, Medication Errors, Wakeful Surgery

Doctors are generally seen as trustworthy professionals who work tirelessly on behalf of the health of patients. But when a doctor makes a mistake, the consequences can be deadly. According to Scientific American, the most recent estimate places the number of hospital deaths each year due to medical negligence between 210,000 and 440,000. This is well over the previous estimate of 98,000 per year, which was reported by the Institute of Medicine in 1999. If the most recent estimate is true, that would mean that mistakes by doctors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., right behind cancer and heart disease.

Diagnostic errors

An error in diagnosis is considered to be the most common type of medical mistake. Receiving the wrong diagnosis means that the patient isn’t being treated properly. This can have life-threatening consequences. For example, a patient may complain of a severe headache. If the doctor fails to run the appropriate tests, the headache may be misdiagnosed as a cluster headache or a migraine instead of the stroke that it’s actually a symptom of.

Medication errors

According to, about 1.3 million people are affected by medication errors each year in the United States. A medication error refers to the inappropriate prescribing or administration of drugs, regardless of whether the patient is currently hospitalized or is taking the drug on his/her own at home. This type of medical negligence is preventable, and it includes problems such as inadequate product labeling, prescribing, compounding, education, and monitoring. The most common medication mistake involves prescribing the wrong dose of a drug, which may lead to life-threatening overdoses.

Wakeful surgery

Waking up during surgery is one of the most alarming examples of surgical errors. It can occur when the patient is incorrectly administered too low of a dose of general anesthesia. Sometimes, there is a medical reason why the anesthesiologist administers a lower dose. Those who have suffered severe trauma, such as in the case of a car accident, and those who are undergoing heart surgery may need a lower dose to ensure safety. At other times, the doctors may need to reduce the anesthesia during surgery due to drops in blood pressure. Waking up during surgery occurs in about one or two cases out of every 1,000. However, some experts believe it is an under-reported problem. People who wake up during surgery report feeling completely paralyzed, yet they are able to hear the doctors. Sometimes, they are able to feel surgical pain.

Hospital infections

Hospitals are notorious for spreading infections, and sometimes the healthcare professionals themselves are the cause. About 1.7 million people acquire various infections from hospitals each year, which results in about 100,000 deaths. Patients can protect themselves by asking their doctors and nurses to wash their hands before administering any treatment. Common types of hospital-acquired infections include pneumonia, urinary tract infections (from catheters), and sepsis.

Incorrect tube placement

Patients who have been hospitalized can attest to the profusion of tubes, wires, and other devices they may have on their bodies at any one time. And sometimes, healthcare professionals can make mistakes while placing them. For example, an anesthesiologist may place the endotracheal tube into the esophagus, instead of the trachea, which can cause death. Nurses may also confuse a chest tube as being a feeding tube, which means that medication could be administered into the wrong tube.

Improper fetal monitoring

While in labor, the fetal heart rate should be monitored closely at all times for signs of fetal distress. Fetal distress requires prompt medical care to avoid problems such as permanent birth injuries. Sometimes, however, the obstetric team fails to closely monitor this information.

Wrong-site surgery

The life-changing implications of wrong-site surgery were forced into the spotlight when a patient, Bill, suffered a seizure and a subsequent car crash. His left leg needed to be amputated, but his right leg was treatable. After the x-ray technician mislabeled the films, the surgeon amputated the viable right leg. A survey determined that wrong-site surgery happens about 40 times each week across the U.S.

Inadequate patient preparation

Patients who are anticipating a surgical procedure should receive extensive preparation and patient education. Otherwise, the consequences may be deadly. When patients are not thoroughly advised as to which medications and herbal supplements to stop taking before the procedure, for example, those drugs may cause uncontrollable bleeding during surgery.

Uncoordinated medical care

Patients with complicated or multiple healthcare problems often see multiple doctors and specialists. For example, a patient undergoing treatment for cancer may see a neurosurgeon, oncologist, urologist, pulmonologist, psychiatrist, and other professionals. When these specialists fail to communicate with each other, the patient may be improperly prescribed medications or may undergo excessive testing.

Improper hospital discharge

Patients who transition from the hospital to the home are at a vulnerable state. They may have been inadequately educated as to their home care needs, and they may have undiagnosed infections acquired from hospitalization. Improper patient education at discharge is a common form of medical negligence. Additionally, some patients may be discharged too soon due to insurance issues. One in five Medicare patients must go back to the hospital within 30 days of their discharge.