How to Stay Safe and Avoid Medical Malpractice

Medical errors and medical malpractice can subject patients to injury, frustration, illness, extra cost, pain and suffering, emotional trauma, time from work and loved ones, disfigurement, and even death.  Given these negative physical, emotional, and financial consequences, the best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to learn what you can do to avoid medical errors and prevent medical malpractice in the first place.

What are Medical Errors

In order to prevent injuries that come as a result of medical malpractice, we must understand how malpractice happens in the first place – through medical errors.  Healthy people don’t generally seek medical attention, so when a patient visits a doctor’s office, they’re usually already suffering from an illness or injury.  If the patient’s health becomes worse, it’s often hard to recognize whether that was because of the existing condition or because of some mistake or medical error in the treatment provided.

To further complicate matters, just because a medical error has occurred doesn’t mean that error would be considered medical malpractice.  Something called “standard of care” determines whether an error or series of errors reaches that level.  “Standard of care” means the level of medical care that a person can reasonably expect from an average healthcare professional.  Doctors are not held to the standard of an excellent doctor, or even to the standard of a good doctor.   In other words, if a good or excellent doctor might have acted differently in a situation and prevented an injury to a patient but an average doctor might not have, the average doctor has not necessarily committed malpractice.  Physicians are required only to perform in accordance with what is expected of an average physician in that field.  It is important to note, though, that doctors who hold themselves out to be experts in a particular field are held to a higher standard than that of an ordinary physician.

In some cases, medical errors occur but it’s not the doctor’s fault.  A patient may give their doctor an incorrect medical history, for example, and that may lead to an incorrect diagnosis.  A medical error has occurred, but it might be unfair to blame the doctor for the mistake.

Medical malpractice occurs when a physician turns away from the accepted standard of care for the medical community.  Malpractice is really a kind of medical negligence, meaning that the doctor was responsible (or had a legal duty) to care for a patient, the doctor failed to live up to that responsibility (or breached that duty), and that failure (breach) was the cause of damage or injury to the patient.  The United States has developed specific medical malpractice law to resolve these cases.

For an overview of medical malpractice and medical error, you can visit the following sites:

Common Medical Mistakes

Remember, not all medical errors are the result of medical malpractice and not all medical mistakes lead to an injury.  However, there are several types of injuries that commonly result from medical errors and medical malpractice.  InjuryBoard has compiled a list and description of common medical mistakes.  If your physician commits these types of errors during treatment, you may consider investigating whether your doctor committed medical malpractice.

Wrong Medication – When a patient receives the wrong medicine, the error can occur during several different steps of the treatment process.  For example, a pharmacist may give a patient the incorrect medication, or a doctor’s handwriting on the prescription could be illegible.  Whatever the reason for the error, the ramifications of a patient taking the wrong medication could be serious.  In the case of many heart medications, for example, the correct medication might be necessary to sustain the patient’s life.  Another troubling scenario occurs when an incorrectly prescribed medicine interacts with other medications the patient takes and creates negative side effects.  Allergic reactions cause some medications to be lethal to some patients.  It’s absolutely essential that patients receive the correct medications.

Wrong Dosage – This kind of error also involves medication but now instead of getting the wrong medicine, the patient gets the right medicine but in the wrong amount.  The consequences of a patient receiving the wrong dosage can be every bit as serious as receiving the wrong medication and sometimes even more so.  If a patient receives a smaller dose than is necessary, the person may not experience any of benefits the medicine is intended to provide in the first place.  If the patient receives a larger dose than is required, that patient could overdose leading to organ failure and possibly death.  Receiving the correct medication is important.  Receiving the correct dose is just as important.

Wrong-Site Surgery – A doctor performing surgery on the wrong part of the body, or worse – the wrong patient – is one of the most egregious medical errors imaginable.  One study estimates that wrong-site surgery occurs between 1,300 and 2,700 times per year in the United States.  One way of reducing the probability of wrong-site surgeries is requiring health care professionals to slow down, verify the patient’s name, confirm the procedure to be performed, and make sure that all the necessary equipment is in the operating room prior to surgery.  Some health care professionals have now made it a practice to have the patient themselves draw a mark on the proper site before the operation.

Misdiagnosis – Misdiagnosis occurs when a physician incorrectly determines the cause of a patient’s illness.  One study of autopsies reports that doctors seriously misdiagnose fatal illnesses in about twenty percent of cases.  Although the incorrect diagnoses did not necessarily cause these deaths, it is clear that misdiagnosis is a serious problem.   Misdiagnosis can lead to incorrectly prescribing medications, pain and suffering, emotional trauma, exacerbation of the condition, further injury, and even death.   

CLICK HERE to learn more about common medical mistakes.

Steps To Avoid Medical Mistakes

There are some medical mistakes that a patient has no control of, but there are many others which can be avoided with the proper care.  Here are some simple but important steps to help you avoid medical mistakes and possible malpractice.

Recognize Medical Errors - To avoid medical errors, you have to first be able to recognize them.  The section and the links above provides information on some of the most common errors.  Take time to read through them before a visit or any medical procedure. If you have any questions about treatment, don’t be afraid to ask.

Get a Second Opinion - Before any major non-emergency medical procedure, or even a minor procedure you feel concerned about, it’s a good idea to get another doctor’s opinion.  Getting a second opinion isn’t a matter of not trusting your regular doctor, it’s a matter of being as responsible as possible for your own health or the health of a loved one.

Avoid the Emergency Room for Routine Illness - When there’s an emergency, the ER is almost always your best option, but for a minor injury or a common cold, it’s better to visit your family doctor or a local walk-in-clinic.  Emergency Rooms are designed to provide care for the critically ill, but the intense atmosphere and the possibility of exposing yourself to bacteria and other contagious elements makes it a place to go only when it’s absolutely needed.

Bring a Loved One or Friend - When undergoing a serious medical procedure, bring a loved one or friend that can be your representative, help you think through important decisions, and ask questions that you might not occur to you.  During these important times, having a “second pair of eyes and ears” and a second perspective may help keep you out of harm’s way.

Read and Understand for Yourself - Whenever you’re given a new prescription or the results of a medical test, it’s a good idea to read that information for yourself and then ask whatever questions are necessary for you to have a reasonably good understanding of what’s going on.  Your health and well-being is your responsibility first, so don’t be embarrassed to ask for a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist to help you understand the medical choices you’re making.

Get the Best Care Possible - Perhaps the most effective way to avoid medical error is to avoid visiting substandard physicians who may not give you proper medical treatment.  The best way to prevent this is to research potential doctors before committing to just one.  If you ask the right questions, perform the right research, and consider the most important factors, you will be well on your way to finding the right doctor for your condition and reducing your chances of suffering the consequences of a medical error.

Read the next article in the series:  Finding the Right Doctor

Contact an attorney in your area.