How Concerned Should You Be About Medical Errors?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 11, 2017
4 min read

Medical mistakes are the stuff of nightmares: operating on the wrong limb; bad drug reactions; instruments left behind. But they’re all too often an unfortunate reality. Reports suggest more than 250,000 people die per year due to medical errors, while millions more are harmed by drug-related mistakes. 

One Californian went through this horror firsthand. In April 2014, the 54-year-old woman had surgery to remove a tumor from their uterus at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, CA. Two weeks later, they had bruising and pain in their abdomen along with vaginal bleeding. A separate surgeon reportedly told them it was part of the healing process.

But at their 6-week visit, they complained of more pain. It was then that a bulb syringe was discovered in their abdomen, and they had surgery to remove it. 

Now, the California Department of Public Health has fined the hospital $28,500 for the mistake. In a statement, Marian Regional Medical Center said, “This was an isolated incident which occurred in 2014. Since then, procedural changes put in place have been successful and no other patient has experienced this complication.” 

Still, the idea that something like this could happen is a terrifying thought for anyone who’s ever been -- or will ever be -- on the operating table.

A 2016 study from Johns Hopkins University suggests that medical errors may be the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease and cancer. The researchers analyzed 8 years of data and concluded that more than 250,000 people die each year due to preventable medical mistakes. A 2013 study estimated the number at more than 400,000 per year.

Numbers from the CDC, however, don’t come to the same conclusion. The CDC reports that chronic respiratory disease -- not medical error -- is the No. 3 killer of Americans, causing about 150,000 deaths. The Johns Hopkins study authors say that’s because the CDC doesn’t include medical errors as a separate cause of death, and they call for this to change.  

While mistakes like operating on the wrong limb or leaving a medical instrument in the body may make headlines, they’re not common. According to research from Consumer Reports, five of the most common medical mistakes are: 

  1. Falls: About a million hospitalized Americans fall each year, and a third of those accidents are preventable. Let the hospital staff know any risks that may make falls more likely for you, such as certain medications you’re on that can cause dizziness or if you’ve had difficulty walking.     
  2. Misuse of antibiotics: Up to 50% of the time, antibiotics are unnecessarily or incorrectly prescribed, according to the CDC. Talk to your doctor about why they’re prescribing antibiotics, and make sure to take them exactly as directed.     
  3. Drug errors: About 1,000 preventable medication errors happen in hospitals each day, usually when the person is prescribed an incorrect dose. Stay safe by knowing the exact name of all drugs you’re taking, why, and exactly how to take them. You should also keep a list of all medications you're taking, including supplements and vitamins, to avoid harmful interactions. 
  4. Too much bed rest: It’s important to start moving as soon as you’re able to, because lying still for too long can weaken the body, making you more prone to falls.  
  5. Discharge before the patient is ready: Research finds that hospitals that do a good job of providing clear discharge instruction have lower readmission rates. Make sure you have clear directions on how to care for your condition or surgical wounds when you’re home.
  • First, the best thing that you and your advocate (family or friend) can do is learn about patient safety challenges, says Joe Kiani, founder of the Patient Safety Movement Foundation. (Find more information here.)
  • Next, do your homework on both the doctor and the hospital you’re considering. Websites such as The Leapfrog Group provide rankings based on the quality of care a hospital provides.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions and provide helpful feedback, Kiani says. “Know that it is OK to politely ask your doctor to wash their hands before examining you and double-check what medications and dosages they want you to take.”