Most doctors and other healthcare providers provide excellent care to their patients most of the time. Unfortunately, even conscientious physicians can make a mistake. Sometimes, those mistakes are deadly. Even when a patient survives a medical error, the results can be catastrophic.
Nearly all experts agree that 40 to 50 percent of all harmful mistakes that doctors make could have been avoided, while some researchers think that nearly all medical mistakes are preventable. Helping the victims of medical negligence recover compensation that will help them get their lives back on track is the mission of medical malpractice lawyers.
What is medical malpractice?
Medical malpractice is a phrase that is commonly used to describe medical negligence. The precise definition of “med mal” varies from state to state, but the general concept is the same in every jurisdiction.
A physician, dentist, hospital staff member, or other healthcare provider commits malpractice when that provider makes an avoidable mistake that harms a patient because the provider failed to follow the same standard of care that reasonable healthcare providers in the same field and location would have followed under similar circumstances. For example, if most surgeons in a community count sponges during an operation to avoid leaving one inside the patient, a surgeon who fails to count sponges commits malpractice when a patient becomes infected by a sponge that remained in the patient’s body after the operation. The surgeon was medically negligent because the surgeon caused harm by failing to follow an appropriate standard of care.
What types of medical malpractice cause harm to patients?
Since medicine is complex, the opportunities to make serious medical errors are almost limitless. It is possible, however, to divide instances of medical negligence into the following broad categories:
- Diagnostic errors. Mistaking the cause of throat pain as acid reflux rather than cancer or misdiagnosing Lyme disease as colitis are examples of diagnostic errors.
- The failure to diagnose a condition, making an incorrect diagnosis, misinterpreting diagnostic tests, or delay in making a diagnosis occur in an estimated 10 to 20 percent of all instances in which doctors are called upon to make a diagnosis. One study found that 28 percent of diagnostic errors cause serious harm. Another study suggests that as many as 40,500 patients admitted to intensive care units each year die as the result of diagnostic errors. Overall, diagnostic errors may be responsible for as many as 80,000 deaths per year.
- Surgical errors – wrong surgery. A typical example of mistaken surgery involves operating on the left knee when the right knee needed surgical repair.
- Surgical errors – mistakes during surgery. Causing internal bleeding or infection by nicking an artery or organ with a scalpel or leaving surgical instruments or supplies inside the body are common examples of negligent surgical acts.
- Surgical errors – anesthesia. Some of the most serious patient harm short of death results from mistakes made while administering anesthesia. Injuries can include serious brain damage, nerve damage, and visual impairment. While many kinds of surgery pose a risk of injury from errors administering anesthesia, dental procedures tend to produce more injuries from anesthesia than other procedures.
- Blood transfusion errors. Giving patients incompatible or contaminated blood can lead to death or serious illness.
- Failure to treat or delayed treatment. Physicians commit malpractice when they recognize a problem but fail to treat it or wait too long to begin treatment. Those errors can occur due to lack of knowledge about current treatment standards. For instance, as many as 100,000 heart patients may have died prematurely during the 1990s because doctors did not realize they should have prescribed beta blockers. In other instances, overworked doctors, having received lab test results that reveal a problem, forget to contact the patient to make necessary treatment recommendations.
- Medication errors. Prescribing the wrong drug for a medical condition or administering a drug to which a patient is allergic are common examples of negligent treatment errors. A study of errors in the treatment of Medicare beneficiaries found that 31 percent of harmful events caused by medical mistakes pertained to the prescription or administration of medications.
- Childbirth injuries. Some fetal injuries and birth defects result from negligent prenatal care, including the failure to diagnose a mother’s medical condition (such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia). The failure to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy can lead to the mother’s death. Acts of negligence during delivery of a baby can be fatal for either the baby (such as the failure to untangle an umbilical cord or delay in inducing delivery when a fetus is in distress) or the mother (including the failure to order a medically necessary cesarean section or to control blood loss).
- Failure to warn. Sometimes doctors correctly diagnose and treat the patient but cause harm by failing to communicate necessary information. Failing to tell a patient not to drink alcohol while taking a prescribed medication and failing to warn a patient with a heart condition not to engage in strenuous activity are examples of negligent failures to warn patients of critical safety hazards.
- Failure to obtain consent. In most cases, doctors must obtain a patient’s informed consent before performing surgery. They sometimes decide to perform additional surgery after they start an operation. When a doctor performs surgery that the patient did not agree upon, the doctor commits malpractice unless the surgery was necessary to prevent the patient’s imminent death.
- Failure to protect from infection. According to the Center for Disease Control and Infections, about 5 to 10 percent of all patients who are admitted to a hospital, or 1.7 million patients per year, acquire an infection during their stay. Many of those infections are preventable.
- Failure to protect from traumatic injuries. Weakened or elderly hospital patients who are not properly supervised when they leave their beds suffer from disabling falls, burns, and other traumatic events. Those who remain in bed for extended periods may suffer from pressure ulcers if they are not moved regularly.
Not all acts of malpractice cause serious injury. Some lead to short-term harms that can be treated successfully. When negligence leads to significant adverse consequences, however, a patient has the right to seek compensation with the help of a medical malpractice lawyer.
How are patients harmed by medical malpractice?
The medical profession refers to the consequences of medical malpractice as “adverse events.” Many of those events involve serious harm to patients, including physical and psychological injuries. The consequences of medical negligence include:
- Death. Estimates of deaths caused by medical negligence vary widely. They are difficult to make due to underreporting of negligent acts and disputes as to whether negligence contributed to death. One recent study estimates that at least 210,000 hospitalized patients — and perhaps as many as 400,000 — die each year due to medical errors.
- Shortened lifespan. A failure to diagnose incurable cancer or other terminal diseases does not itself cause death (the disease does that), but in many instances, the patient’s life could have been prolonged if the disease had been diagnosed, and treatment had commenced, at an earlier time.
- Brain injuries. Medical malpractice can lead to brain damage in a variety of ways, including failing to relieve pressure on the brain after a concussion, oxygen deprivation during anesthesia, and the prescription of medication that disrupts the brain’s ability to function.
- Disabilities. From the failure to set a broken bone properly to a surgical error that causes paralysis, patients often experience short-term or permanently disabling conditions as the result of treatment errors. Hearing, visual, and speech impairments are also disabling conditions that can result from medical malpractice.
- Disease. Hospital-acquired infections due to a hospital’s failure to control the spread of bacteria or to sterilize catheters and other instruments can lead to pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and other infectious diseases.
- Injuries to babies. Brain damage and birth defects result from a doctor’s negligent prenatal care, from oxygen deprivation that the physician could have prevented during delivery, and from other acts of malpractice.
- Prolonged hospital stays and extra medical expenses. Preventable hospital-acquired infections add about two weeks to an average hospital stay and an extra $150,000 in billings for treatment. Other acts of malpractice also require patients to seek prolonged treatment and add to their medical bills.
- Wage loss. The temporary or permanent inability to return to work after an injury caused by medical malpractice often leads to a substantial loss of income.
- Pain, suffering, and emotional distress. Medical malpractice often causes patients to experience significant (and sometimes disabling) pain that they may need to endure for the rest of their lives. Illness and disabilities resulting from medical negligence are a source of serious mental anguish and distress.
Given their physical infirmities and vulnerability, elderly patients tend to experience the most serious harm when they become the victims of medical malpractice. Any patient, however, can be injured by a negligent healthcare worker.
What causes medical malpractice?
There is no single cause of medical negligence. A number of factors contribute to substandard patient care, including:
- Systems failures. Patients often “bounce around” in the healthcare system, moving from one clinic to another in search of affordable care, or to meet the changing requirements of insurance plans. It is difficult for doctors to understand the medical histories of their patients when records must be assembled from a variety of sources. Incomplete data can cause doctors to overlook allergies and other health problems. Within a hospital or other large medical organization, “dysfunctional corporate cultures” lead to poor management and oversight, ultimately resulting in patient harm.
- Pressure on healthcare providers to see more patients. Particularly when physicians work for HMOs and similar organizations, they are expected to treat (and bill) an unrealistic number of patients each day. Pressure to maximize billings forces doctors to minimize the amount of time they spend with each patient. That leads to brief interviews, incomplete examinations, and overlooked symptoms.
- Pressure to avoid ordering diagnostic tests. Many tests that would help doctors diagnose diseases and other health conditions are expensive. Insurance companies do not want to pay for tests that they consider “unnecessary.” They pressure doctors not to order those tests, forcing doctors to make judgments without the full set of data that they need.
- Lack of knowledge. Doctors do not always understand the current standard of care for treating every condition they encounter. When they prescribe medications, they may not be aware of the most recent studies that call the safety of those medications into question. The absence of a comprehensive requirement for continuing education contributes to physicians’ lack of up-to-date knowledge.
- Lack of skill. Most doctors develop expertise in their fields but hospital personnel who are responsible for important tasks, such as administering medication, receive considerably less training.
- Staff shortages. In some communities, there just are not enough doctors to meet demand. That causes overworked physicians to make mistakes. Other staff shortages — particularly insufficient nursing staff in hospitals — are perennial problems that lead to poor patient care, including mistakes made when dispensing medication.
- Inadequate resources. Many physicians work in environments that fail to provide them with the medical equipment they need to do their jobs. When hospitals and clinics do not invest in the latest technology, patient care suffers.
- Poor communication. When a hospitalized patient receives care, the new shift that comes on duty needs to know what care was provided during the previous shift. Failure to communicate that information effectively causes harm to patient. Electronic medical records are beginning to solve that problem, but hospitals have been reluctant to invest in electronic health records.
- Failure to discipline repeat offenders. One analysis by a public interest group found that half of all acts of medical malpractice resulting in the payment of damages were committed by the same 5 percent of doctors. The failure of medical licensing boards to discipline or suspend careless physicians contributes to the malpractice crisis.
Regardless of the cause, acts of medical malpractice can have a devastating impact on patients and their families. Pursuing compensation with the help of a medical malpractice attorney is often the only way for victims to gain a measure of justice.
What should you do if you were the victim of medical malpractice?
The Harvard Medical Practice Study reported that most acts of medical malpractice are never identified and that most victims are never compensated. In fact, the study found that 98 percent of adverse events related to medical negligence did not result in malpractice claims, even though half of those events caused substantial harm to patients.
If you believe you were injured, if your life expectancy was shortened, or if a loved one died as the result of medical malpractice, you can protect your rights by taking these simple steps:
- Take pictures if the malpractice resulted in visible symptoms, such as bruising or bedsores.
- Continue treating for your injury. If you have not recovered, you should do everything you can to get better.
- Gather your medical records from the office of the doctor that committed malpractice. You have a right to obtain a copy of your medical records by asking your doctor’s records custodian for them, although you will probably need to pay a copying fee. You are not required to (and should not) explain why you want them. It is important to obtain your medical records before your doctor knows you might bring a malpractice claim. Some doctors alter the records if they know they will be sued.
- Make a list of all the places where you were treated. Your lawyer will want to ask for those records to evaluate the harm that the malpractice caused. Include hospitals, clinics, physical therapy centers, diagnostic centers, and everywhere else that you obtained health care.
- Gather all of your medical billings. Include billings that were paid by insurance.
- Get advice from a medical malpractice attorney. An experienced personal injury or wrongful death lawyer who handles medical negligence cases can evaluate your case and tell you how to proceed.
Since malpractice claims must be filed within strict time limits, you should consult with a personal injury law firm as soon as you suspect that you were the victim of medical malpractice.