People seek medical care in order to feel better, not worse. Most patients get the quality of care they rightfully expect. But not all of them. Sometimes healthcare providers make preventable mistakes that leave patients worse-off. Generally speaking, that is what lawyers call "medical malpractice", which we explain in this guide.
The idea that a doctor, nurse, or other medical professional might commit an error does not sit well. We hold healthcare workers in high regard these days, and for good reason. They have extensive training, commit their careers to healing others, and recently have put their own lives at risk to serve patients sick with COVID-19. Still, medical providers are also human beings. They mess up from time-to-time, but unfortunately, unlike most people, their mistakes and errors have the potential to have severe, even fatal, health consequences for a patient.
The only way to protect yourself entirely from medical errors and mistakes is never to see a doctor, which is obviously not a good idea. However, as a patient who seeks medical care, you can reduce your risks by treating medical providers as the fallible human beings they are, and by advocating for yourself or your loved one in every healthcare setting.
Understand the Types of Medical Errors and Mistakes
Medical professionals make dangerous mistakes for many of the same reasons we all do. They get tired, stressed, and overworked. Lines of communication break down with their co-workers. They do not listen when they should. They act on faulty information.
As a grounding for learning how to protect yourself from harmful medical errors, here is a sampling of some of the most common scenarios that lead to injuries and medical malpractice lawsuits:
- Sterilization and Infection Errors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and health care settings have taken extraordinary measures to prevent infection by setting up separate areas for coronavirus patients, and following diligent patient safety practices in order to reduce potential exposure to the disease. Still, small mistakes can lead to tragic outcomes.
- Missed diagnoses. Doctors will tell you that diagnosis is as much as art as science, and in some cases that may ring true. However, sometimes a patient "presents" with symptoms that 99 doctors out of 100 will recognize as a well-known condition, but for whatever reason, the last doctor will simply swing-and-miss. For example, a patient showing up at an ER with a dry cough, fever, chills, and no sense of taste or smell should probably receive a presumptive COVID diagnosis, but even after the crisis had taken hold, some doctors continued to misdiagnose the condition, with potentially deadly consequences.
- Record-keeping errors. Medical professionals base decisions that could have significant health implications on information they find in a patient's medical records. Inaccurate data in a medical record can have tragic consequences, such as when a healthcare worker records an incorrect medication dosage or fails to note that a patient takes one medicine that might cause harmful interactions with another.
- Communication mistakes. In a dynamic setting like an operating room or emergency department, doctors, nurses, EMTs, surgical techs, and other healthcare workers need to share vital information in a clear, consistent manner. Mistakes happen, and patients get hurt, when team members do not communicate well with each other about a patient's condition and needs.
- Procedural and technical errors. Medical professionals often need to perform skilled, technical tasks, such as intubation, starting an IV line, using a laparoscope, administering anesthesia, or cutting, cauterizing, and suturing a surgical site. In any of these procedures, medical workers can slip-up and cause injury by, for example, accidentally severing a nerve, burning tissue, causing a catastrophic drop in blood pressure, or harming a patient's vocal cords.
These are just a few examples of the ways that mistakes happen in a healthcare setting. All represent a lapse in the minimum "standard of care" that medical professionals have a duty to provide to at every hospital and medical service facility in Maryland. Any of them can result in tragic harm, including brain injuries and birth injuries.
Steps to Minimize Your Risk of Medical Error-Related Injury
To keep yourself as safe as possible from the risk of medical error in a Maryland healthcare setting, avoid the instinct to put doctors and other healthcare professionals on a pedestal. They make mistakes just like anyone else. You can help them avoid those errors, and minimize the danger to you, by:
- During the coronavirus pandemic, having a clear understanding of the measures your medical team will take to protect you against exposure and infection.
- Knowing the names of, and communicating regularly with, members of your medical team during a hospital stay or doctor's office visit;
- Insisting on having a clear, straightforward understand of the care you have received in the past, and the plan for your care in the future;
- Knowing the names and dosages of all medication you take, and why you take it;
- Asking questions and following up to make sure you get clear answers;
- Taking notes of what doctors, nurses, and others tell you about your condition;
- Having a clear picture of the risks and benefits of any recommended procedure, including of what will happen if something goes wrong;
- In any setting in which you may not have the ability to speak for yourself, always having a trusted family member or friend with you to act as your advocate.
- Speaking up when something does not seem right.
These specific tips reflect a broader principle that all patients and their trusted "advocates" should take to heart: in a healthcare setting, nothing is more important than the patient's health. It trumps every other consideration for the doctors, nurses, and the patient. Which means, if you feel you need to share or obtain information relevant to patient safety with a healthcare worker, then you must do so, even if it makes you feel impolite or pushy or annoying to others. We do not mean you should get yourself thrown out of a facility for being a dangerous nuisance, of course. But, we do mean you should not feel afraid to insist on someone hearing the information you have to share, and on getting clear answers to all of your questions, even if that makes you the patient everyone thinks is a "pain" in the you-know-what.
Seek Legal Advice After a Medical Error Harms You
The team at D'Amore Personal Injury Law, LLC has years of experience representing Maryland residents, workers, and visitors who have suffered injuries because of medical mistakes and errors. Contact us today to learn about your rights to compensation after a medical error leads to a harmful health outcome, particularly one related to COVID-19.