These Are the Most Common Types of Medical Errors in the US

A doctor is diagnosing a patient

Misdiagnosis, wrong-site surgery, and mistaken patient identities are some of the medical errors that frequently occur in U.S. hospitals. They can result in serious injury or death. A Johns Hopkins study puts the number of people who die every year from medical errors in the United States at more than 250,000. That makes medical errors a leading cause of death, only behind heart disease and cancer.

The Most Common Medical Errors

Common medical errors are the basis of many medical malpractice cases. From the data recorded by the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), medical malpractice payouts totaled close to $4.4 billion in 2019, including $334,615,300 in Illinois alone. Medical errors related to a diagnosis made up most of the malpractice claims in 2019.

Below is a closer look at errors in diagnosis and other common preventable medical errors.


Incorrect diagnosis leads to unnecessary or harmful treatment. It can cause proper treatment to be delayed, prolonging a patient’s suffering. The wrong treatment can sometimes worsen conditions and cause more severe symptoms.

A study reveals that about 12 million people are misdiagnosed at U.S. outpatient facilities each year. That is equivalent to 1 in every 20 adults. Past research indicates that 50% of these errors can cause serious harm. That puts 6 million outpatients at risk of acquiring severe health problems because of a misdiagnosis.

Stroke, heart disease, appendicitis, lung cancer, fractures, and meningitis are some of the most frequently misdiagnosed conditions.

Medication Errors

Medication errors occur in different forms, such as:

  • Prescribing the wrong type or dosage of medication
  • Using an incorrect route of administration
  • Monitoring errors, such as failure to document allergies or account for drug interactions

The Institute of Medicine reports that about 1.5 million people are harmed by medication errors annually in the United States. Caring for and treating victims of medication-associated errors costs more than $40 billion every year.

Billing Errors

In medical bills, patients often receive charges in error, such as:

  • unused items
  • procedures not received
  • incorrect length of stay
  • stays or procedures coded incorrectly

Billing advocates and health professionals estimate that as many as 80% of medical bills contain errors. The diagnosis codes that can be used are about 70,000, whereas the available procedure codes are nearly 71,000. The complex billing system leaves plenty of room for errors to be made on medical bills.

The wrong code can result in hundreds or even thousands of dollars in overcharges. According to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), Americans spend about $210 billion on overpriced or unneeded treatments annually.

Surgical Errors

A study of surgical events recorded over 20 years (1990-2010) by the NPDB established that 4,000 surgical errors occur annually in the United States. The researchers call these errors “never events” because they are mistakes that should never happen in a surgical setting. The events include leaving foreign objects in patients’ bodies after surgery and operating on the wrong people.

Analysis done by researchers estimates that every week, surgeons:

  • operate on the wrong site 20 times
  • perform an incorrect procedure on someone 20 times
  • leave a foreign object like a towel or sponge in a patient’s body 39 times

Patient Identification Errors

Patient misidentification affects people in multiple facets, including diagnosis, medication administration, and billing. Some identification errors cause serious patient harm. In one incident in Boston, a patient had a healthy kidney removed after being mistaken for a patient who had a kidney tumor. In Florida, practitioners reported performing 63 surgical procedures on the wrong patients between 1990 and 2003.

Findings from a study by The College of American Pathologists suggested that more than 160,000 adverse events annually in the United States are caused by identification errors involving patients’ laboratory specimens.

Causes of Medical Errors

Several factors can work alone or in combination to cause common medical errors. These include:

  • Lack of training: New staff can cause errors because of insufficient training or lack of experience in handling a particular situation. Errors can also occur due to tasks being assigned to inappropriate staff.
  • Time sensitivity: Unusual time pressure to complete a diagnosis or start and complete a procedure increases the risk of a wrong diagnosis or performing a procedure incorrectly.
  • Limited testing: For patients with preexisting health conditions, healthcare professionals can persist with the initial diagnostic impressions and fail to order new diagnostic tests. That is a common cause of diagnostic errors.
  • Rare diseases: A disease is said to be rare if it affects less than 200,000 Americans. Rare illnesses are often misdiagnosed.

Medical errors occur more frequently than desired. By being more informed about their health, doctors, and medical facilities, and patients can better identify these errors and take action when they spot any inconsistencies. That will help curb medical errors.


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