8 Most Common Causes of Medical Errors

Medical errors are now the third leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Roughly one in seven Medicare patients will experience a medical error in some capacity every year. Medicine is an inherently uncertain field, but medical professionals and the organizations that provide medical care have an obligation to their patients to minimize the occurrence of medical errors and provide the best possible standard of care. No two medical error cases are exactly alike; however, almost all medical errors trace back to one of the following eight most common causes. If you or somebody you loved was harmed and suspect negligence, it is always a good idea to speak with an experienced Kansas City medical malpractice lawyer.

Poor Communication

Medical professionals work in teams, and nurses, doctors, surgeons, specialists, technicians, and administrators must work in tandem to provide high-quality care. If a nurse fails to properly monitor a patient, or a doctor doesn’t convey important diagnostic information to the necessary team members, medical errors can occur.

Information Transfer Breakdowns

Patients must sometimes travel between different medical facilities, practices, and surgical centers to receive care. When they do, their files must go with them. If one office sends an incomplete or inaccurate record to another, it can easily interfere with patient care and lead to a medical error. Information transfer problems can lead to poor communication and missteps in patient care, such as prescribing a patient a medication to which the patient is allergic.

Human Error

Medical professionals have a greater duty of care than most people in other professions, and they receive extensive education and training before administering care to patients. However, this does not mean they never make mistakes. Simple human errors can lead to surgical mistakes, compromised lab samples, poor documentation, illegible handwriting on a prescription, and more possibilities.

Patient-Related Problems

Some medical errors occur due to miscommunication or other problems with a patient. The most common example of this type of medical error is the failure to secure informed consent. Patients have a right to know all the possible risks of any proposed course of treatment, and doctors must ensure their patients fully understand a treatment option before commencing it.

Organizational Transfer of Knowledge

Medical errors can also happen when a healthcare organization fails to uphold proper training and educational protocols, particularly in organizations that hire temporary staff. All medical staff members of an organization, full-time or temporary, should fully understand their organization’s policies when it comes to providing patient care, communication with team members, and handling patient records.

Equipment Failures

Modern medicine relies heavily on many complex instruments and machines. If a medical device, surgical tool, or piece of lab equipment breaks, it can lead to a medical error and harm to patients. Liability for an equipment failure may rest with the medical personnel using the equipment or the manufacturer of a defective device.

Staffing Problems

Inadequate staffing, poor scheduling, and insufficient training of inexperienced staff members may not directly cause medical errors, but these issues increase the chances of medical errors happening. Additionally, staffing problems can also make it more difficult to treat a patient who has suffered from a medical error and lead to communication breakdowns among medical teams.

Organizational Failings

Healthcare organizations must have procedures and protocols in place to safeguard their patients. This includes small private practices and metropolitan hospitals alike. Poor documentation, inadequate or outdated organizational policies, or non-existent procedures for possible patient incidents can all lead to medical errors.

These are just the most common causes for medical errors in the United States. Such issues can occur for any number of reasons, and patients who suffer harm as a result will need to pursue medical malpractice claims to recover their damages. Many medical malpractice claims touch on at least one of the aforementioned issues, and it’s up to medical organizations and professionals to ensure they are providing the best possible standard of care at every level, for every patient.

Medical Malpractice Statistics

On average, roughly 75,000 medmal claims are made each year in the United States, 34 percent of which are due to surgery errors.  If a doctor stays in their profession for 20 years or more, it’s all but a guarantee that a doctor will face a malpractice claim of some sort during their career. Obstetrician-gynecologist (OBGYN) are the professionals most commonly involved as a defendant in malpractice claims at 19 percent, followed by general surgeons (17 percent) and primary care physicians (16 percent). While only three percent of all malpractice claims were filed pediatricians, they faced the largest average payout of any specialty, at approximately $520,000 per claim.


Despite the high number of claims made, malpractice is not an easy thing to prove. A recent study shows that only 22 percent of medmal claims actually resulted in payments to the claimant. As a result, the total number of payments has decreased substantially from 1991 to 2017. In 1991, there were 19,016 paid malpractice medical payments; in 2017, that number had fallen to 11,260.  As of 2017 2,631 of these claims were paid more than  $500,000 or more.


Only 4.5 percent – on average depending on the doctor’s practice area – of malpractice cases in the medical field go to trial, the rest are settled out of court. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as litigated claims tend to take much longer to complete. For those successful in trial, it took an average of 25 months to receive payment; for those settled out of court, it only took 11 months.