Types of Medical Errors and How to Avoid Them

June 3, 2015

Gap Medics students getting excited for their hospital placements! Everyone makes mistakes. But in the medical field, mistakes can be costly. Although not all medical mistakes can injury a patient, some errors can have serious consequences.

Medical errors can come at a high cost to healthcare facilities, their employees and most of all the patients and their families. According to the Institute of Medicine, over 1.5 million people in the United States are injured each year due to a medical mistake. Injuries range from mild to deadly. It is estimated that about 200,000 people die every year from preventable medical mistakes.

It is virtually impossible to prevent all errors in medicine. After all, healthcare workers are human, and no one is perfect. But there are common reasons why errors occur and things you can do as a healthcare worker to reduce your risk of making a mistake.

Why Medical Mistakes Occur

Most medical workers want to do the best job they can. No one sets out to make a mistake on the job. There are several reasons why medical errors happen. Understanding some of the reasons is the first step in preventing mistakes.

  • Inexperience

Whether you are a doctor, nurse or allied healthcare worker, experience is a great teacher. But experience comes in time, and you won’t know everything directly out of school. Sometimes, your judgment may be off, or you may lack the skills to perform a certain procedure.

What you can do: You cannot do anything about being inexperienced. But you can do your best to develop your skills. Pay close attention during training. Once you are hired, take advantage of your orientation. Brush up on procedures you need experience with. Learn from everyone around you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if needed.

  • Inattention to detail

 Being distracted can lead to mistakes. Both new and experienced employees may lose focus for a variety of reasons. There may be times you have to juggle many responsibilities, and it can be hard to pay attention to everything. In other cases, you may have things on your mind, which distract you from your duties.

What you can do: If your workload is too large to manage effectively and safely, speak with your supervisor. It can also help to prioritize your tasks and avoid rushing through things.

  • Fatigue

 Working in healthcare can be exhausting. Between long hours, overnight shifts and being on call, fatigue can often set in. The emotional stress can also increase fatigue. For instance, it can be hard to stay mentally sharp when you are working several busy, 12-hour night shifts in a row. But staying alert is essential for medical workers.

What you can do: You may not be able to prevent working overnight or having to be on call. But you can try to combat fatigue by getting as much rest as possible before your shift. Once you’re at work, getting a little fresh air can help you feel refreshed. Taking breaks is also essential to stay mentally sharp.

  • Miscommunication

 One of the biggest reasons why medical mistakes occur is due to miscommunication. Miscommunication may include not clarifying an order, hearing something wrong or assuming something.

What you can do: When it doubt, check things out. Clarify anything you are unsure of, such as orders and test results.

Common Medical Mistakes

There are many different types of medical mistakes, which can occur. Some of the most common ones include those listed below.

  • Medication Errors

Medication errors are one of the most common mistakes made. Medication errors may involve giving the wrong medication to the wrong patient or giving an incorrect dosage. Mistakes may also include not checking drug interactions when giving several meds to the same patient.  Many healthcare facilities have implemented the scanning of both patient wristbands and medications, which has reduced errors, but mistakes still occur. Giving the wrong medication can lead to severe consequences and even cause a patient’s death.

  • Failure to Take the Needed Precautions

Medical workers may also fail to take the precautions they need to keep a patient safe, which can lead to falls. For example, leaving bedrails down or having the call light out of reach can lead to a patient falling out of bed.

  • Cross Contamination

Hospital infections can be transmitted from patient to patient inadvertently by hospital workers. Infections can also develop if sterile techniques are not used when needed. Hospital acquired infections include ventilator associated pneumonia, MRSA and surgical site infections.

  • Diagnostic Mistakes

Although not quite as common as other medical mistakes, errors in diagnosing a condition do occur. An incorrect diagnosis can lead to a delay in treatment or the wrong treatment. It can also lead to a poor prognosis.

  • Delays in Treatment

Delays in treatment can lead to poor patient outcomes including death. In some cases, a delay in treatment can lead to permanent deficits. For example, if a stroke patient is not treated promptly, it can lead to long-term problems, such as impaired speech and paralysis.

Preventing Medical Mistakes

Although it is almost impossible to prevent all mistakes, there are things you can do to decrease the likelihood of making an error on the job. For example, when taking a verbal order, used closed loop communication. Closed loop communication involves repeating the order back to whoever gave it. In addition, if an order is unclear or seems inappropriate, get clarification from the doctor.

Following hospital protocols and policies can also reduce mistakes. Policies are in place for a reason. For instance, if your hospital requires two nurses to verify the administration and dosage of certain drugs, it is essential to follow procedures.  In some cases, trying to find shortcuts to how you perform your job can compromise patient care.

When caring a patient, performing a procedure or administering a medication, use two patient identifiers, as your facility requires. Examples of patient identifiers include date of birth, medical record number and name.

Lastly, if you do make a mistake, don’t try to cover it up. Follow your facilities policy for reporting mistakes. Trying to cover up a mistake can harm a patient, hurt your reputation and even cost you your job.