What are Medical Errors?

A medical error can occur during any phase of medical treatment and in almost any health care setting. In this article, we'll examine the legal and practical implications of medical errors, and offer some tips for patients on reducing the risk of medical errors. 

What is a Medical Error?

While there is no universal definition, a medical error might best be described as an outcome that was not anticipated, or was not a reasonably expected result in the normal course of the practice of medicine. That's a pretty broad definition, but here are some examples of the kinds of errors that can occur:  

  • failure to identify and diagnosis a health problem or condition
  • incorrect administration of medication to a patient
  • sub-standard performance of diagnostic examinations, surgeries, and other procedures
  • improper use and maintenance of medical devices, instruments, and equipment
  • negligent preparation and co-ordination of patient records, test results, and other medical documents. 

Medical errors can happen during even the most routine tasks, such as when a hospital patient on a salt-free diet is given a high-salt meal. And they can occur in a variety of health care settings, including:

  • hospitals
  • clinics
  • outpatient surgery centers
  • doctors' offices
  • nursing homes, and
  • pharmacies

Errors also happen when doctors and their patients have problems communicating. For example, a recent study supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that doctors often do not do enough to help their patients make informed decisions. Uninvolved and uninformed patients are less likely to accept the doctor's choice of treatment and less likely to do what they need to do to make the treatment work.

Medical Errors vs. Medical Malpractice

It is important to note that, simply because a medical error has occurred, that does not mean that the affected patient automatically has a viable medical malpractice case. A medical error can form the basis of a malpractice case, but not on its own. The medical error (which, in legalese, translates to medical negligence) must have been the direct cause of actual harm to the patient, and in most cases you will need an expert medical witness to testify that the treating physician’s action (or inaction) deviated from the medical standard of care that was appropriate under the circumstances.

How to Prevent and Avoid Medical Errors

What can you do, as a patient, to prevent medical errors? Be involved in your health care. The single most important way you can help to prevent errors is to be an active member of your health care team.

That means taking part in every decision about your health care. Research shows that patients who are more involved with their care tend to get better results. Some specific tips follow.


  • Make sure all of your doctors know about everything you are taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and dietary supplements such as vitamins and herbs.
  • Make sure your doctor knows about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medicines.
  • If you have any questions about the directions on your medicine labels, ask.
  • Ask for written information about the side effects your medicine could cause.

Hospital Stays

  • If you have a choice, choose a hospital at which many patients have the procedure or surgery you need.
  • When you are being discharged from the hospital, ask your doctor to explain the treatment plan you will follow at home.


  • If you are having surgery, make sure that you, your doctor, and your surgeon all agree and are clear on exactly what will be done, what the risks are, and what kind of results can reasonably be anticipated.

Other Steps You Can Take To Prevent Medical Errors

  • Speak up if you have questions or concerns. You have a right to question anyone who is involved with your care.
  • Make sure that someone, such as your personal doctor, is in charge of your care. This is especially important if you have many health problems or are in a hospital.
  • Make sure that all health professionals involved in your care have important health information about you. Do not assume that everyone knows everything they need to know.
  • Ask a family member or friend to be there with you and to be your advocate (someone who can help get things done and speak up for you if you can't). Even if you think you don't need help now, you might need it later.
  • If you have a test, don't assume that no news is good news. Ask about the results.
  • Learn about your condition and treatments by asking your doctor and nurse and by using other reliable sources.

For example, treatment recommendations based on the latest scientific evidence are available from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services National Guideline Clearinghouse at guideline.gov. Ask your doctor if your treatment is based on the latest evidence.

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