Common causes of medical errors

Picture of SIM-MT
simulation, healthcare, debrief, medical errors
Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

SIM-MT started because of startling statistics…

According to a study conducted by John Hopkins, medical error is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.  

To put it into perspective, one of every nine malpractice cases are due to medical error. It accounts for 9.5% of all deaths in the US per year.  

This blog lists out the top 7 reasons as to why medical errors occur.  

#1: Failing to check on the patient

This can happen for a ton of different reasons that don’t fall under direct neglect. Perhaps their case is routine and the provider has encountered it thousands of times. But this one instance was different. Maybe the clinicians patient load exceeds that which is prudent to provide good care, but they are short-staffed and have no other alternative. Perhaps a miscommunication occurred between providers and one thought the other was taking the patient. Albeit no reason is a good reason to neglect a patient, it does happen and it falls under medical error.   

#2: Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis

Despite best efforts, not all clinical cases are easily diagnosed. Or maybe a patient lived with symptoms for a period of time before getting checked out. Symptoms and lab testing results can mimic various disorders making it hard to narrow down diagnosis at times. These can all lead to a patient having a delayed diagnosis or being misdiagnosed, and ultimately to their demise.  

#3: Applying the wrong treatment

Exhaustion, multitasking, and being in a hurry can all be attributed to treatment and medication errors. A wrong diagnosis can easily contribute to a wrong treatment. Something as simple as over-oxygenating a patient for an extended period of time can have consequences.  

#4: Incorrect medications prescribed

From dosage to the wrong drug for the patient's symptoms or clinical presentation, having the wrong medications for a medical condition occur from time to time. Not being familiar with a medication can lead to giving the wrong dose. Medications with similar names or shorthand abbreviations can lead to giving the wrong medication, at the wrong dose, at the wrong time to a patient. 

#5 Ignoring the Patient’s symptoms or concerns.

Sometimes it is the patient who ignores their signs and symptoms until it is too late. It can be from fear of what they will be told when they get checked out. Or they could be “too busy” and ignore them until they get severe.  

Other times, unfortunately, providers don’t take a patient's symptoms seriously. It could be because they can’t find a clearcut cause for the symptoms.  

#6 Prematurely discharging the patient

Let’s face it. No one wants to stay in the hospital. We will work hard to get better and sometimes diminish how we truly feel to go home.  

Our labs may not show what would be considered grounds for hospital admission. This can sometimes be determined by metrics set by insurance companies as well, meaning if you stayed admitted your insurance may not cover your stay. 

So we go home. And then things turn worse.  

#7 Failure to order, perform, or act on lab tests

Maybe the provider doesn’t think the testing is necessary.  

Or maybe the tests were ordered and never sent for review to the provider.  

Or, maybe the provider reviewed them and didn’t deem further treatment necessary.  

Either way, this is one of the leading causes of preventable death and a case of medical error.  


Good clinicians sometimes make mistakes. And systematic constraints like demands on time, short staffing, finances, or simply lack of educational resources can exacerbate things by pushing training to the background.

SIM-MT wants to help alleviate these constraints by providing high quality, hyper realistic training. And often for high-acuity, low-occurrence situations. 

Many causes of medical error could be prevented with training and a willingness to change: to change protocols, behaviors, staffing paradigms, and systems set in place.