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What Are the 5 Most Common Emergency Room Errors?

February 20, 2020

We typically think of hospital emergency rooms as the best place to get medical care when serious injury or illness suddenly strikes. Indeed, in 2016, there were 146.5 million emergency room visits in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But, unfortunately, with chaotic waiting rooms packed with sick and injured people, overworked doctors, nurses and medical staff, and the inherent difficulty of quickly assessing patients and obtaining their complete and accurate medical history, the ER is frequently the site of medical errors.

When Should I Go to the Emergency Room?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s online information service MedLinePlus, you should go to the emergency department or call 911 for help for problems such as:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Passing out, fainting
  • Pain in the arm or jaw
  • Unusual or bad headache, particularly if it started suddenly
  • Suddenly not able to speak, see, walk, or move
  • Suddenly weak or drooping on one side of the body
  • Dizziness or weakness that does not go away
  • Inhaled smoke or poisonous fumes
  • Sudden confusion
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Possible broken bone, loss of movement, particularly if the bone is pushing through the skin
  • Deep wound
  • Serious burn
  • Coughing or throwing up blood
  • Severe pain anywhere on the body
  • Severe allergic reaction with trouble breathing, swelling, hives
  • High fever with headache and stiff neck
  • High fever that does not get better with medicine
  • Throwing up or loose stools that does not stop
  • Poisoning or overdose of drug or alcohol
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Seizures

How Frequently Do Medical Errors Occur in Emergency Rooms?

A study conducted of 1,935 patients at an academic emergency department found that nearly 20 percent of them fell victim to medical errors. Ninety eight percent of the errors did not have a significant adverse outcome. Patients involved in errors were more likely to be older and more likely to have higher visit level intensity than registered emergency department patients.

Overall, 250,000 people in the U.S. die each year because of medical mistakes, rendering them the third leading cause of death in the U.S., following heart disease and cancer, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University.

What Are the Most Common Emergency Room Errors?

  • Five common emergency room errors are:Diagnostic errors, including misdiagnosis and failure to diagnose.
  • Triage errors, meaning patients who require immediate medical care are forced to wait behind patients with less-urgent conditions.
  • Medication errors, including providing the wrong medication, wrong dose, or failing to check for drug allergies or unsafe drug interactions.
  • Communications errors, such as discharge instructions that do not provide the necessary information for patients to properly manage their own care.
  • Failure to order or correctly interpret diagnostic tests.

How Can Patients Prevent Emergency Room Mistakes?

  • When possible, come prepared with a complete list of your doctors, recent medical test results, a list of the medications you are taking (you can bring the pill bottles), and information regarding any medication allergies.
  • Some emergency rooms are better equipped than others to address your specific medical situation, and a little research before the need to visit an ER arises can make a big difference in the care that you (or your loved one) receives. For instance, if you are bringing a child to the ER, it may be best to go to an ER that has pediatric emergency specialists on staff.
  • When possible, call your doctor before proceeding to the emergency room. If your doctor believes that you need immediate treatment, he or she can call the emergency room and apprise the doctors of your situation, medical history, medications and other crucial information. If you don’t require immediate medical care, your doctor may be able to squeeze you in for an appointment or refer you to an urgent care center in the alternative.
  • Bring a friend or relative. If you need emergency room care, you are not at your best. A friend or relative can help provide information vital to your treatment and can also ask questions and help ensure that you understand all discharge instructions.

What Should I Do If I Believe I Have Been Injured by a Medical Error in the Emergency Room?

If you believe you have been injured by a doctor, nurse or other hospital or emergency room staff member, it is important to consult with an attorney immediately to ensure that your legal rights are protected.
“When an ER physician fails to adhere to well-established standards of care, a trip to the emergency room can change from a life-saving to a life-altering event very quickly,” Feldman Shepherd co-managing partner Mark W. Tanner said. “Over the past three decades, we have investigated thousands of these cases, and with an ER physician on our staff, we are uniquely positioned to assist those families who need us.”


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