Every year, an estimated 98,000 people lose their lives due to preventable medical error. In fact, some studies say this number is a massive underestimate; they say as many as 440,000 people who go to the hospital die due to an error on the part of the staff while they are there. Medical errors, then, are at least the sixth and possibly as high as the third leading cause of death. However, these numbers are subject to various definitions and reporting standards, as well as an understandable desire on the part of medical professionals not to attribute adverse outcomes to their own mistakes. On top of that, outcomes are less likely to be traceable to errors the longer after the error they happen, making accurate data difficult to determine.
There are a number of types of errors that can cause problems. The most common, and most fundamental, medical error is simple misdiagnosis. Either one or more symptoms are missed, or symptoms are misinterpreted, or a patient will have symptoms that have more than one explanation and the doctors get it wrong. Unfortunately, sometimes even though several conditions have similar or overlapping symptoms, they have different treatments—in extreme cases, the treatment for one of the conditions will make another one worse. In any event, a patient who has been given the wrong diagnosis is likely to be given a treatment that is not helpful.
Even with the correct diagnosis, medication errors can be dangerous, even fatal. Transcription errors or misreading can lead to patients being given the wrong dosage, or even the wrong medication entirely. Some medication errors are due to poor coordination—two or more medications, appropriate on their own, but dangerous when used together, and health care professionals don’t realize the problem.
In fact, medical error can often be traced to poor communication among doctors. Even with electronic record-keeping, professionals treating the same patient often communicate primarily through notes in charts, and may never meet in person or directly discuss the patient’s care. In one study, training designed to enhance communication by hospital staff across shift changes improved patient outcomes dramatically, and another study shown improvements by involving the patients in these handoffs.