Just over 20 years ago, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report in book form, To Err is Human, that estimated up to 100,000 people in the U.S. died each year from preventable medical errors, more than vehicle accidents or breast cancer. In the report, medication errors alone accounted for more patient deaths than workplace injuries did for workers.
These errors were often heartbreakingly elementary – amputating the wrong leg, failing to detect infection, being injected with the wrong medication or diagnostic fluid, and on and on.
But that was more than 20 years ago. Where are we today? You may be surprised to learn that medical errors have actually increased! The IOM study of 1999 found that deaths due to medical errors were the seventh leading cause of death. A recent Johns Hopkins study suggests medical errors are now the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, killing 250,000 people in the U.S. every year (other studies estimate that number is as high as 440,000).
Why does medical care continue to pose a real threat of preventable error and harm?
While medical errors occur in a variety of situations, these are the most common root causes:
Lack of proficiency – when a medical professional lacks the required ability or knowledge to perform a procedure or examination competently.
Poor judgment – when a physician’s care decisions increase patient risk unnecessarily or violate standards of care without adequate justification or because of competing interests (self or other).
Poor execution – when a medical professional is otherwise knowledgeable and skilled but makes an error in following correct procedures.
Communication errors – when vital patient information is not relayed or is wrong, missing, or misinterpreted resulting in care decisions that could potentially harm them.
Sadly, the majority of medical errors come down to a lack of good coordination and communication as patients are handed off between technicians, nurses, doctors, and other providers.
So, how do we “fix” the issue of medical errors? According to one expert, simply implementing a checklist is not the answer because providers can be resistant to changing the way they work. Change requires deep intervention work and ongoing training to identify the obstacles that are standing in the way of adopting new protocols to better safeguard patients. The responsibility for change, however, does not rely solely on the providers. It is certainly shared by the operating systems within our healthcare institutions that are themselves highly resistant to change and view change itself as a potential threat rather than an opportunity to improve patient care and outcomes.
As patients and those with loved ones under medical care, understanding the risk of medical errors is an important first step in protecting yourself and them. If you suspect an error has been made, alert your provider immediately. If you or a loved one has been harmed by a suspected medical error, let us help. Contact us to arrange for a consultation.