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Six Common (and Preventable) Medical Mistakes


According to a recent study in the Journal of Patient Safety, somewhere between 210,000 and 440,000 people die each year in the U.S. from preventable medical mistakes made in hospitals. Medical mistakes are now the third-leading cause of death in the country, behind only heart disease and cancer.

Some of the most common medical mistakes that often prove to be fatal include:

  • Medication errors, when patients receive the wrong prescription, or the wrong dose of the correct prescription. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, those who are at particular risk for medication errors are elderly patients, who often take more medications and are more vulnerable to adverse effects than the general population, and pediatric patients, who must be dosed according to their weight, which opens the door to error.
  • Unsafe medical devices that can and do cause some patients harm, including artificial joints, heart defibrillators, and transvaginal mesh. According to an investigation by Consumer Reports, medical devices often are not tested before they are introduced to the market, and there’s no efficient way for the government, researchers, and patients to identify problems with devices before it’s too late.
  • Wrong site surgeries, surgery performed on the wrong side or site of the body, on the wrong patient, or performing the wrong surgical procedure, are rare events, but happen more often than expected. Wrong site surgery is typically caused by a lack of or failure in communication, procedural noncompliance, or general lack of leadership.
  • Bloodstream infections, specifically central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSI) occur about 30,000 times each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A CLABSI is an infection in the central venous catheter, which is placed in a large vein in the leg, neck, or chest so that medications and fluids can be given more easily, and blood can be collected for testing by medical staff. When this catheter is not inserted correctly or is not properly maintained through sterile techniques, a potentially deadly infection can set in very quickly.
  • Hospital-acquired pneumonia is the second most common hospital-acquired infection occurring in U.S. hospitals, and is fatal for 10 to 50 percent of afflicted patients. When patients develop pneumonia 48 to 72 hours after being admitted for treatment of a non-pneumonia condition, they have developed hospital-acquired pneumonia (HAP), which causes the air sacs of their lungs to fill with pus, preventing them from breathing properly. HAP is usually bacterial in nature, and is most predominant in medical and surgical intensive care units.
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which occurs when a blood clot forms in one of the deep veins of the body, usually in the legs. The clot may block the flow of blood to that area of the body, causing cell death and sometimes requiring amputation. If the clot breaks off, it can become a pulmonary embolism that blocks a blood vessel in the lungs, causing death. Positioning techniques and the use of blood thinners and compression stockings can help prevent DVT.

There’s never been an actual count done of how many patients experience preventable harm in hospitals and medical errors will never be completely avoided. But patients who take a more active role in their healthcare are probably less likely to become victims of these deadly mistakes.

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