What is a Medical Error?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2019
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A medical error is a mistake which is made in the process of diagnosing or treating disease. Medical errors can take a wide variety of forms, from administering the wrong medication to accidentally delivering a diagnosis to the wrong patient. Doctors, hospitals, and other representatives of the medical profession work very hard to reduce the incidence of medical errors, because they are bad for business and bad for patients.

One common form of medical error is misdiagnosis, in which a patient is diagnosed incorrectly, or a diagnosis is missed altogether. This type of medical error is especially common in situations where patients present with unusual diseases or unexpected manifestations of ordinary illnesses. Diagnostic errors can be reduced by using a second opinion to confirm a diagnosis, and by encouraging doctors to consult with each other to solve tricky cases.


Another type of medical error is administration of the wrong medication, or administration of a medication which may be harmful to a patient. In the hospital, for example, a nurse might accidentally introduce the wrong medication to an intravenous drip because the medication supply is not clearly labeled or the nurse is in a hurry. A doctor may also prescribe the wrong medication, and if the prescription is not questioned, the patient will be given a drug he or she should not have received. It is also not uncommon for doctors to prescribe medications which conflict with a patient's existing medications or conditions, which is why pharmacists are supposed to scrutinize every prescription they receive.

Surgery is also infamous for its medical errors, although errors in surgery are actually fairly rare. However, they tend to be monumental when they do occur. Cutting off the wrong limb or leaving surgical tools in the body are two forms of surgical errors. To reduce such errors, surgeons routinely mark their patients before surgery with lines which indicate where to cut and which procedure is being performed, and medical instruments are carefully tracked to ensure that nothing is left in the patient.

There are a number of ways to reduce medical error. One technique is to use a standardized color coding system for medications, surgical tools, and other medical equipment. When a doctor grabs an intubation tube with an orange ring, for example, he or she will know exactly what size it is without needing to check the label. Color coding is used to code anesthesia medications, and to code cabinets in drawers in hospitals so that in an emergency, people can open a drawer of a specific color to access the tools they might need.

Many hospitals have reporting systems for medical errors which encourage doctors to report in a no-fault system. This allows people to report their own errors and to whistleblow on other members of the hospital without the fear of punishment, bringing errors out into the open so that they can be discussed. Discussions of medical errors typically include a conversation about what caused the error and how it can be avoided in the future.


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