Emergency room errors shouldn't happen — but they do

People who head to the emergency room have something going on that requires immediate medical attention. Patients assume that ER doctors are fully capable of making an accurate diagnosis when they arrive.

Yet misdiagnoses in emergency rooms are a real problem. In ER, doctors usually don't have access to a comprehensive medical history for patients. They often have to rely on bits and pieces of information. This, however, doesn't mean that people who seek care in the emergency room should expect serious medical conditions to go untreated.

Errors can be fatal

Some medical conditions for which people head into the emergency room are fatal if they aren't treated right away. These include heart attacks and strokes. Heart attack symptoms differ in men and women, for example, meaning that a failure to account for all symptoms can lead to fatal errors.

All symptoms must be taken seriously until doctors can prove that there isn't anything life threatening going on. These include abdominal or chest pain, rectal bleeding and shortness of breath. In these cases, doctors must ensure that they are working actively to rule out or prove the presence of a life threatening condition.

Possible problems in the emergency room

Not only do emergency room doctors not have a patient's full medical history, they also have the challenge of dealing with a high stress environment that might include more than one patient with a life threatening problem.

Another issue involves diagnostic procedures. Misreading of x-rays or other imaging tests can lead to a misdiagnosis. This is a real concern because some hospitals don't have practices in place to ensure that these are read correctly at the time the patient is in the emergency room. They might rely on technicians or doctors to read them instead of having a radiologist available around the clock to read these tests.

Doctors and hospitals might try to put the blame on patients when an error is made. But under the law, all doctors are held to a specific standard of care. Failure to treat patients according to the accepted level of care in the emergency room can lead to medical malpractice lawsuits. 

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