Are All Mistakes Malpractice? Don't Forget That Your Doctor Is Human

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An explanation of what medical errors fall under malpractice, common reasons why they occur and how to prevent and resolve them the best;with open, honest patie

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published a ground-breaking study on the prevalence of medical mistakes called To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System. The report shocked many readers—physicians and patients alike—with its statistics regarding medical errors.

It reported that between 44,000 and 98,000 patients died in hospitals every year because of preventable medical mistakes. More recent studies have found that it is more likely that 195,000 patients die each year in hospitals due to medical mistakes, and that over one million patients suffer injuries from medical errors each year.

Common Areas Of Malpractice

Some of the most common types of medical mistakes include: Medication errors and errors in dosing, injuries during surgery and surgeries that occur at the wrong site, injuries related to restraints, patient falls, pressure ulcers and infections that occur due to contaminated equipment. If you or someone you love has been affected by a medical mistake, you may be wondering if you have been a victim of malpractice.

The Malpractice System

The medical liability system in the courts is designed to compensate patients for the financial and emotional suffering they have experienced as the result of a medical mistake. In order to prove malpractice, the patient or patient's family must demonstrate that the doctor or health-care worker who was caring for them was negligent, (failed to provide the standard of care); and that this negligence caused their injury or death.

Why Do Medical Mistakes Occur?

Humans make mistakes. Patient safety studies have shown that medical mistakes are very rarely caused by malicious doctors (although bad doctors do exist). Mistakes do happen more frequently when providers lack experience and when brand-new techniques are first introduced.

Elderly patients, emergency patients and patients in intensive care are more likely to experience medical mistakes, presumably because their conditions are more complicated. Poor systems within hospitals can also increase mistakes, and greater attention has been paid recently to improving hospital systems and checklists in order to ensure patient safety. Unfortunately, even conscientious doctors and nurses make serious mistakes that may have tragic consequences.

Patient-Physician Communication

Although the malpractice system serves an important role, many agree that the overall system is flawed. Sometimes patients with genuine claims are never compensated, and sometimes innocent doctors are sued for massive amounts of money.

Fear of lawsuits sometimes prevents physicians from disclosing medical mistakes to their patients, yet open communication and an apology for what happened are what patients often want most. This is both the most ethical and the most expedient way to handle a mistake. Litigation is extremely costly for both plaintiff and defendant, and it benefits everyone when errors are admitted and fairly compensated accordingly. At the same time, patients need to be careful not to bring illegitimate cases against doctors. According to one expert, 70 percent of malpractice claims are dropped or dismissed for lack of evidence.

In short, it's not always easy to discern when a medical error has occurred, or to distinguish between errors and negligence. Humans do err, and these errors should be handled with openness and mutual understanding.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: January 05, 2017

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