According to Johns Hopkins University, medical errors are the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in roughly a quarter of a million fatalities annually. Before the pandemic, medical errors ranked only behind cancer and heart disease.
The most common medical mistakes include misdiagnoses, medication errors, surgical missteps and childbirth injuries. These mistakes take an enormous toll on our confidence in the medical industry. A recent New England Journal of Medicine study shows only 34% of Americans trust medical providers compared to 75% in the 1960s.
Eight underlying causes of medical mistakes
Medical errors that can lead to death or lengthy and costly treatments for patients are often the result of malfunctions in the health care system. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality attributes medical errors to eight common issues, ranging from human errors to systemic failures. These include:
- Communication breakdowns: Verbal or written miscommunication often occurs between doctors, nurses, other staff members and patients.
- Lack of information: Mistakes result when providers receive or share insufficient information on patients discharged or transferred to other medical facilities.
- Human error: These issues happen when medical personnel does not correctly follow standards of care, procedures, policies or processes.
- Patient-related: These examples include inadequate patient assessment, failure to obtain consent, inappropriate patient identification and insufficient education about their condition.
- Organizational knowledge: Facilities that lose experienced staff members often struggle from inexperience and inadequate training.
- Staffing and workflow: Mistakes are more likely to happen in understaffed facilities with high patient-to-caregiver ratios.
- Equipment failures: Technical issues with medical devices often lead to complications for patients.
- Inadequate policies: Deficient policies and procedures and poor or non-existent documentation routinely lead to the breakdowns identified above.
Any of these deficiencies can lead to lifelong, costly consequences for patients. Many of these shortcomings have been widely identified over the past decade since the advent of the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems. The HCAHPS is the first national patient survey on hospital care in the U.S.