Types of Medical Errors: Facts and Figures Unveiled

by | Jul 10, 2024 | Medical Malpractice, Medication Errors

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“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ― Albert Einstein.

It is quite natural for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to commit errors. But when your physician does a mistake, it could even cost your life. Every decision and action of a medical professional could have consequential imprints on the health and life of the patient.

Definition of Medical Error

What is medical error? The term medical error refers to a preventable adverse event or a negative outcome caused by an error committed by a physician, a nurse, or any other healthcare professional involved in the patients’ care.

As per the reports of the World Health Organization (WHO), medical error leads to 2.6 million deaths in low-and middle-income countries around the globe.

Research studies suggest that after heart disease and cancer, medical errors are the third-leading source of fatalities in the United States. Another data indicates that one in twenty patients is affected by medical errors that could have been prevented. Trillions of U.S dollars are lost every year to compensate for medical error claims.

What are the Types of Medical Errors?

Well, a response to that query cannot be fenced in easily. A medical error could turn up anywhere in any form during the treatment. Rather than sketching the types of medical errors, it would be more fitting to report them as the most commonly reported preventable medical errors. The medical error types are mentioned below.

  • Misdiagnosis
  • Delayed Diagnosis
  • Surgical Errors
  • Infections
  • Medication Errors
  • Substandard Medical Devices
  • Premature discharge from care
  • Failure to instruct on home care
  • Communication error
  • Falls

Let’s dig deeper into medical error and the resulting med mal lawsuits in the United States.

Misdiagnosis and Delayed Diagnosis

Misdiagnosis occur when a healthcare professional misinterprets an illness. For instance, a cardiac issue could be interpreted as asthma or indigestion.

It is estimated that each year in the U.S. over 12 million adults in outpatient medical care receive a misdiagnosis of their illness. 44% of the cancer types are often misdiagnosed. Women and children are 20 to 30 % more likely to be misdiagnosed.

As per the latest misdiagnosis statistics in 2023, around 370,000 individuals die and more than 420,000 people encounter disabilities each year due to misdiagnosis. More than 60% of the times, spinal abscess is misdiagnosed. Misdiagnosis of stroke (18%) leads to around 100,000 serious injuries or harm every year.

  • Misdiagnosis may occur when the physician
  • Diagnoses one condition but fails to realize that there is a need for a second diagnosis
  • Fails to screen for a particular medical condition
  • Fails to refer the patient to a specialist
  • Misinterprets the lab test results
  • Fails to properly follow up on the symptoms

Studies suggest that all of us would experience a diagnostic error in our lifetime, some may end up in minor harm and others with devastating consequences. A misdiagnosis does not need to occur only in certain specialties. It may occur in emergency medicine, radiology, or any other medical subspecialties.

71.2% of the diagnostic errors are reported to occur in ambulatory settings, especially in outpatient clinics or emergency departments. Emergency rooms are obvious in the picture as a patient reporting to an ER would be in the early stage of the illness and the presentation of clinical symptoms would be less evident. This makes it more prone to diagnostic errors.

The Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine (SIDM) indicate that the top misdiagnosed vascular disease is stroke, the top misdiagnosed infection is sepsis and the top misdiagnosed cancer is lung cancer. SIDM has identified the following as major causes of diagnostic errors.

  • Lack of proper communication
  • Limited time
  • Complicated diagnostic process
  • Limited support to help with clinical reasoning
  • Lack of proper feedback and measures
  • Lack of research funds

Complications of Diagnostic Error

Misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis of an illness could end up in the below-mentioned complications

  • Unnecessary medications
  • Surgical procedures
  • Increased treatment cost
  • Complications
  • Emotional distress
  • Death

In case of a misdiagnosis, when the patient is harmed, it could bring up a lawsuit for medical malpractice.  With the help of a medical malpractice attorney, the claimant has to prove that a physician in a similar specialty would not have misdiagnosed the illness. This is done with expert testimony providing a differential diagnosis of the subject’s illness.

Medical malpractice lawsuit for misdiagnosis is usually filed against the physician and in some instances against nurses, lab techs, and other specialists involved in the treatment. Damages caused to the claimant including pain and suffering, cost of medical bills, loss of earning capacity, loss of enjoyment, etc. could be claimed in a misdiagnosis lawsuit.

Delayed Diagnosis

Delayed diagnosis is when a healthcare provider fails to diagnose a disease on time hindering the treatment in the early stages. It is otherwise known as missed diagnosis. It occurs when a provider overlooks or dismisses the plaintiff’s symptom or fails to refer the patient to the specialist on time.

For example, a pulmonary embolism or a cancer even after the patients exhibit symptoms could be diagnosed very late by the provider. A delayed or missed diagnosis reduces the chances of a patient’s recovery or prolongs the recovery time. In some cases, it even ends up in the demise of the victim.

Medical malpractice occurs when the provider’s service falls below the standard of care ending up in the injury or harm of the patient. The plaintiff should be able to prove that the provider’s missed or delayed diagnosis is the direct cause of their injury. They should also prove that they have sought medical advice soon after having their symptoms.

Surgical Errors

Surgical errors are another class of commonly encountered medical errors. It often results in life-threatening complications leaving the patient in pain and distress. The surgical errors statistics point out that at least 4000 surgical error cases occur each year in the United States. Out of which around 60 percent cause minor harm and 33 percent cause permanent injuries and 7 percent end in the demise of the patient.

Types of Surgical Errors

The following are the common surgical errors encountered.

  • Operating on the wrong body part
  • Anesthesia errors
  • Accidental incisions
  • Nerve damages
  • Post-operative infections
  • Amputation errors
  • Inadequate follow-ups after surgery

Surgical Error Complications

Surgical error is not just about the wrong surgery. It also leads to complications like

  • Scarring
  • Disfigurement
  • Need for corrective surgeries
  • Internal bleeding
  • Disability
  • Organ failure
  • Death

Surgical errors contribute to most of the medical malpractice lawsuits in the U.S. However fighting a surgical error lawsuit is much more complicated than you assume. With the help of medical malpractice lawyers, it would be stress-free for the victims to pursue lawsuits against the surgeons, hospitals, and insurance providers.

The claimant should prove that a preventable error had happened in the surgical procedure. The surgeon should have failed to follow the appropriate standard of care. The error should have caused damage to the victim. This is usually done with the support of another medical professional who provides testimony after analyzing the surgery.

Depending upon the damages sustained by the claimant, he may receive compensation through a successful medical malpractice lawsuit. However, the legal proceedings for a surgical error lawsuit may vary from one state to the other.


Infections are another type of medical error that may arise in a patient due to the negligence of the healthcare professionals or the hospital environment. Hospital-Acquired Infection (HAI) is a type of infection caused due to the lack of sterility and cleanliness of the treatment facility. When an infection is identified 48 hours after hospital admittance, it is considered as HAI. The patient may contract the infection through unsterilized ventilators, catheters, surgical instruments, etc.

The CDC reports that hospital infections give rise to 90,000 fatalities annually. Approximately 1 in 25 U.S. patients acquire at least one infection during their hospital care.  Infections result in an estimated 205,000 additional hospital days for infected patients causing an extra $2 billion towards hospital charges.

HAIs can happen in the following healthcare setting.

  • Outpatient facilities
  • Ambulatory surgical centers
  • Dialysis centers
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Nursing homes

Immunocompromised individuals and infants are also more susceptible to infections and related complications which may include

  • Septic shock
  • Blood clots
  • Oxygen deprivation
  • Organ failure

Infection of the surgical site by Staphylococcus is one of the most commonly reported infection-related medical errors. This often causes serious complications in the patients, when not treated immediately.

Osteomyelitis is another infection that is often reported as a medical error in the U.S. It is caused by bacterial or fungal infections contracted during procedures like orthopedic surgery. When left untreated, it may spread to other body parts leading to acute infection. Failure to address Osteomyelitis may even end up in amputation which is a common medical malpractice claim.

It is a risky affair to proceed with a lawsuit involving infection as it is tough to prove the root cause of an infection. If the infection is an evident HAI, not associated with the preexisting illness of the claimant, the healthcare provider could be sued for the damages sustained by the claimant. Infection lawsuits are more often focused on the failure of the physician or the healthcare provider to address the infection on time by providing adequate medical care.

Medication Errors

It is estimated that nearly one-third of adults in the U.S take five or more medications. That makes medication error another extensively reported medical error. Medication errors themselves cost an estimated $42 billion annually.

Prescribing the wrong medication, wrong dose, interactions between the prescribed drugs everything is considered as a medication error. For instance the wrong dosage of the anticoagulant drug, heparin may cause either serious bleeding complications or clotting risks. Hence it is considered one of the high-risk medications by the medical community.

When a patient is harmed as a result of a medication, it is termed an Adverse Drug Event (ADE). Each year, nearly 700,000 emergency department visits and 100,000 hospitalizations are caused due to ADE. A medication error may occur at any time during the ordering, dispensing, or administration of the medication.

The liability of a medication error may be on the physician, nurse, or pharmacist when the medical error arises during the prescription or dispensing of the medication. However, the pharmaceutical company could be sued for mislabeling and packaging faults. Prescriptions and bills act as crucial evidence of medical errors related to medications. Getting legal advice from a skilled medical malpractice lawyer would help the claimant in a better claim.

Substandard Medical Devices

The medical error committed by healthcare professionals is just one side of the coin. Another side is the harm caused to the patients by defective medical devices used in the treatment. A medical device can be any material or device that is implanted inside or outside the body. This may include surgical tools, hernia mesh, vaginal mesh, hip implants, IVC blood clot filters, etc.

The manufacturing, marketing, and regulation of medical devices in the U.S are controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). With the 510(k) approval process of the FDA, companies manufacturing medical devices could avoid a full-scale review of their products before it reaches the market. Medical devices are categorized as Class I, II, and III. The low-risk devices come under class I whereas the high-risk medical devices come under class III.

When the patient is harmed by a defective medical device used in the treatment, he can file a product liability lawsuit against the company that had manufactured the product for the medical device fault errors. The defect and the outcomes should also be reported to the FDA. The claimant is entitled to receive compensation depending on the damages he sustained because of the medical device.

Medical expenses, loss of consortium, emotional distress, loss of income, etc. are some of the recoverable damages that come under a defective medical device lawsuit.

Premature Discharge from Care

Premature discharge from medical care is also one of the medical errors types. It is the practice of releasing a patient from a healthcare facility or discontinuing their treatment before they have fully recovered or received adequate care. It often occurs due to financial constraints, bed shortages, or administrative pressures.

This approach can have major implications, as it can aggravate health problems, raise the risk of complications, and even cause needless readmissions, ultimately jeopardizing patient well-being and healthcare system efficiency.

Patient-centered care should be prioritized in effective healthcare delivery, ensuring that patients get appropriate and timely treatment until their medical requirements are fully satisfied, reducing the occurrence of premature release.

According to the medical errors statistics, around 20% of the adverse medicine related events occur following premature discharge from care.

Failure to Instruct on Home Care

Failing to provide clear and thorough home care instructions can result in patient harm, unsatisfactory treatment outcomes, and significant health concerns. Effective communication between healthcare providers and patients is important for ensuring that people understand their post-treatment duties, drug regimens, and self-care routines.

Patients may struggle to follow recommended procedures if they are not properly guided, endangering their recovery and adding to the strain on the healthcare system. Healthcare practitioners must emphasize detailed and easily available home care instructions in order to provide patients with the knowledge and tools they need to manage their health successfully and independently.

Communication Errors

As per the statistics, more than 80% of the medical errors occur due to the communication errors during patient transfer. Nurses failing to communicate the complications of the patient to the physician on time, physicians failing to communicate the issues to the specialists or the miscommunication between the radiologists and the physicians, all contribute to the medical errors.

Even errors in medical documentation can be included in communication errors. Prescribed medicines documented wrongly in medical charts by the nursing assistants, or the dispensing of wrong medication by the pharmacist due to the illegible handwriting of the physician also can make the outcome worse.


According to the NCBI, around 1 million patients encounter fall incidents in the U.S. facilities every year, leading to 250,000 injuries and around 11,000 patient fatalities. Negligence from the part of the nursing assistants or hospital staff.

Identifying the patients who are at high risk of falling is significant in preventing such adverse outcomes. Fall prevention strategies should be used to restrict the fall risk. Elderly patients, patients taking psychoactive drugs, or sedatives should be monitored closely.

Horrific Story of a Medical Error

Dr. Carol E. Gunn shares a story of medical error she has seen in her life. This video will probe into the details of the medical error.


Advancements in medical technologies act as a double-edged sword, making the treatment of an illness more accurate and complicated at the same time. While addressing a medical error like post-surgery bleeding, it should be kept in mind that it need not always be the surgeon’s error. It may also occur if the patient is susceptible to bleeding.

Fatal medical error incidents are always used to mirror the scale of the issue. However, some of them cause harm to the patient and are not life-threatening. With that note, I am not trying to lessen the gravity of a medical error. Safe and effective medical care is the right of every individual. WHO is focusing global attention on medical errors by launching campaigns and awareness programs. As a part of it, World Patient Safety Day is observed on the 17th of September.

The fact of the matter is that each of us must be an advocate for our own health.  Clarify with your healthcare professional when encountering any troubles in medical treatment. Never hesitate or pause to get legal support if any medical error is suspected. This would help you to meet up the medical expenses by getting a deserving compensation.

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