Medical Malpractice: Common Errors by Doctors and Hospitals

What kinds of health care mistakes are behind most medical malpractice lawsuits?

Updated by , Attorney

Medical malpractice cases arise when a doctor, nurse, or other medical professional harms a patient by providing sub-standard treatment. In this article, we'll discuss the specific types of errors that give rise to the most medical malpractice lawsuits:

  • misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis
  • medication errors
  • childbirth injuries
  • surgical mistakes, and
  • anesthesia errors.

(A preliminary word of caution: Just because a doctor made a mistake or you're unhappy with a course of treatment or its outcome, that doesn't mean malpractice occurred. You need to be able to show that the health care provider's failure to meet the medical standard of care was the cause of your measurable harm. Learn more about proving medical malpractice.)

Misdiagnosis or Delayed Diagnosis

Misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis account for a large percentage of medical malpractice claims. When a doctor misdiagnoses a condition—or fails to diagnose a serious disease for an unreasonable amount of time—the patient might miss treatment opportunities that could have prevent significant harm, even death.

The key in proving a medical malpractice claim based on misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis is to compare what the treating doctor did (or didn't do) to how other competent doctors within the same specialty would have handled the case. If a reasonably skillful and competent doctor under the same circumstances would not have made the diagnostic error, then the treating doctor might be liable for malpractice.

Medication Errors

Medication errors harm thousands of people in the United States every year. Medication mistakes can occur at any point on the timeline from initial prescription to administration of the drug. For example, if a doctor prescribes the wrong medication, or a medication meant to treat a misdiagnosed condition, the patient might suffer harm. In a hospital setting, the right drug might be given to the wrong patient.

But by far, the most common medication errors involve dosage—the patient gets too much or too little of a drug. Dosage mistakes can happen when:

  • the doctor writes an incorrect dosage on the prescription
  • the prescription is correct, but the nurse administers the incorrect amount
  • equipment that administers the drug malfunctions, giving a too-large dose of medication over a short time, or vice versa; this might occur when a defibrillator has a dead battery or an intravenous pump has a dislodged valve.

Childbirth Injuries

A physician or obstetrician's negligence can occur during childbirth or before. If negligent medical treatment occurs during pregnancy—including failure to identify congenital disabilities or an ectopic pregnancy—it could harm the fetus or the mother (or both). A doctor's negligence during childbirth, such as failing to respond to signs of fetal distress or incompetent use of forceps or a vacuum extractor, could also cause injury to the baby and harm the mother.

Medical malpractice can cause a number of fetal injuries, including brain injuries (such as cerebral palsy and seizure disorders), fractured bones, and Erb's and Klumpke's palsy (damage to nerves that control the arms and hands). But keep in mind something other than medical malpractice could also cause these injuries.

Surgical Mistakes

Many medical malpractice claims arise from mistakes in the operating room. A surgeon might be negligent during the operation itself, by puncturing internal organs, operating on the wrong body part, or leaving surgical instruments in the body. Or the nursing staff might be negligent in administering post-operative care, which could result in complications like a dangerous infection.

Anesthesia Errors

Anesthesia errors are often more dangerous than surgical mistakes. Even a small error by an anesthesiologist can result in permanent injury, brain damage, or even death. An anesthesiologist might commit medical malpractice even before anesthesia is administered by:

  • failing to investigate the patient's medical history for possible complications, or
  • failing to inform the patient of the risks involved if preoperative instructions aren't followed, like not eating for a specific amount of time before surgery.

Anesthesia errors that could happen during surgery include:

  • giving too much anesthesia to the patient
  • failing to monitor the patient's vital signs
  • improperly intubating patients (putting a tube in the trachea to assist with breathing), or
  • using defective equipment.

Talk to a Medical Malpractice Lawyer

Complex legal and procedural rules apply to medical malpractice cases, and those rules can vary considerably from state to state. Getting the best result for your case starts with discussing your situation with an expert. Learn more about getting help from a medical malpractice lawyer.

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