25 Most Shocking Medical Mistakes, and How You Can Protect Yourself
Hospitals are typically thought of as places where lives are saved, but statistics show they’re actually one of the most dangerous places you could possibly enter.1,2 Each day, more than 40,000 harmful and/or lethal medical errors occur, placing the patient in a worse situation than what they came in with.3
According to a 2013 study,4,5 preventable medical errors kill around 440,000 patients each year — more than 10 times the number of deaths caused by motor vehicle crashes. A 2016 study6 calculated the annual death toll to be around 250,000.
Medical Mistakes Are the Third Leading Cause of Death in the US
Either way, medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., and have been since at least 2000, when the late Dr. Barbara Starfield published her shocking conclusion that doctors kill 225,000 patients each year. Her findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.7 Ironically, Starfield ended up a statistic herself.
She died suddenly in June 2011, a death her husband attributed to the adverse effects of the blood thinner Plavix taken in combination with aspirin.8 Her death certificate, however, makes no mention of this possibility. Indeed, one of the reasons why many are still surprised by these statistics is due to fundamental flaws in the tracking of medical errors, which has shielded the reality of the situation and kept it out of the public eye.
While there are codes that capture iatrogenic causes of death, published mortality statistics do not take them into account. They only look at the condition that led the individual to seek medical treatment in the first place. As a result, even if a doctor lists medical errors in the death certificate, they are not included in the CDC’s mortality statistics, and without that data, medical mistakes remain a largely hidden problem.
Hospitals Are Hotbeds for Lethal Infections
Hospitals have become particularly notorious for spreading lethal infections. According to 2014 statistics9,10 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 25 patients end up with a hospital-acquired infection, and 75,000 people per year die as a result.11
Earlier research12 has suggested as many as 1 in 10 patients will contract a nosocomial infection, defined as an infection contracted within 48 hours of hospital admission, or within three days of discharge, or within 30 days of an operation. Medicare patients appear to be at greatest risk. According to the 2011 Health Grades Hospital Quality in America Study,13 1 in 9 Medicare patients developed a hospital-acquired infection.
The video above features the Discovery Channel documentary, “Shocking Medical Mistakes: The Empowered Patient,” originally aired in 2016. In it, medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen investigates medical mistakes and missed diagnoses, including some of her own experiences as a patient, and what you can do to become an empowered patient and reduce your risk when a hospital stay is necessary.
25 Most Shocking Medical Mistakes
As mentioned in the video, medical mistakes occur every single day, and some are more serious than others. Cohen reveals 25 of the most shocking in the following countdown, and how you can protect yourself from becoming a statistic:
25. Baby security breach
Since 1983, 132 newborns have been abducted from U.S. health care facilities.
Safety tip: Make sure a parent or nurse is present with the child at all times while in the hospital.
24. Fake doctors, aka “prestige fraud”14
Believe it or not, hundreds of individuals have been caught posing as doctors when, in fact, they did not have a medical degree.
Safety tip: Make sure your doctor is a licensed physician in your state. For help, see CertificationMatters.org.15
23. Treating the wrong patient
This mistake typically happens when patients have similar names and the doctor or nurse fails to double-check all of the patient’s data before administering treatment.
Safety tip: Before every procedure, including drug administration, make sure the staff checks your full name, date of birth and the barcode on your wrist band, to ensure correct treatment.
22. Pharmacy mix-ups
According to the National Patient Safety Foundation, 30 million prescriptions are improperly dispensed each year in U.S. pharmacies.
Safety tip: Before you leave the pharmacy, ask the pharmacist to confirm that the medication is the correct one, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the look of the pills, and that you’ve received the correct dosage. Also verify that the label has your name on it.
21. Botched plastic surgery
Any number of things can go wrong when you go under the knife, and death is a potential side effect even of plastic surgery.
Safety tip: Make sure your surgeon is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery. You may also want to check whether your surgeon has any malpractice suits filed against him or her. Most state medical boards provide this information free of charge.
You can find a list of state medical boards on the Federation of State Medical Boards website.16 Another source is the Administrators in Medicine,17 a nonprofit organization that compiles licensing and disciplinary information from each state’s medical board.
20. Incorrect drug dosages
One of the most frequent mistakes occur in pediatrics. A child given an adult dose of a medication can have life-threatening consequences. According to the Joint Commission, hospital personnel stock medication in the wrong places 4 percent of the time, which can lead to incorrect dosage or drug being administered if the nurse or doctor fails to carefully inspect the package before administration.
Safety tip: Ask for a daily list of medication and dosages that you are supposed to receive during your hospital stay, and double-check each medication before taking it or allowing it to be administered.
19. Toxic transplants
As noted by transplant surgeon Dr. Lloyd Ratner, any given organ donor could be a carrier of one of several thousands of pathogens. The case highlighted in the video is that of an 18-year-old kidney recipient who died of rabies. It turns out the organ donor had been bitten by an infected bat. All of the organ recipients contracted rabies from the infected organs and died. In the U.S., more than 100 organ recipients have died from toxic transplants.
Safety tip: If you become sicker after receiving a transplant, ask if other recipients are also getting ill. Early diagnosis and treatment may save your life.
18. Improper or careless discharge
A man having just undergone brain surgery is packed into a cab, which drops him off in an unfamiliar neighborhood on a rainy day wearing nothing but a hospital gown and socks. When he was too confused to remember his own address, two Samaritans eventually got him home safely.
Safety tip: If you’re scheduled for surgery, find out when you’re scheduled for discharge ahead of time and make sure someone you know is there to take you home.
17. Ambulance errors
Any number of errors can occur on the way to the hospital, but first the ambulance must actually get to you. Patients have died due to the ambulance being dispatched to an incorrect address.
Safety tip: When calling for an ambulance, if possible, slowly and clearly state and spell the street address.
16. Lost patients
This typically occurs in nursing home facilities, where dementia patients may wander off the premises. One in 5 nursing home patients is prone to wandering. In one case, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s was found after a four-day-long manhunt, locked inside a storage closet on the premises. She died shortly thereafter from dehydration.
Safety tip: If you have a loved one who is prone to wander, get them a GPS bracelet so you can track their whereabouts.
15. Surgical “souvenirs”
Surgical sponges, steel clamps and surgical retractors are but a few of the items that have been left inside patients undergoing surgery. According to one estimate, 2 in 10,000 surgical patients come out of surgery with a “souvenir” left inside.
Safety tip: Before surgery, remind hospital staff to count the number of items used, to make sure all surgical items are accounted for before you’re stitched up. Should you experience unexpected fever, pain or swelling following your surgery, ask your doctor to double-check if equipment has accidentally been left inside you.
14. Babies accidentally switched after birth
As with patients receiving the wrong treatment, this mistake typically occurs if two mothers have the same or similar name.
Safety tip: When a nurse brings your baby, ask him or her to match the baby’s identification bracelet to yours.
13. Deadly air bubbles
A young man dies when a nurse fails to follow proper procedure for removal of a central line tube in his chest, allowing air to enter his bloodstream. In one hospital intensive care unit, improperly removed central lines caused 10 air embolisms in a single year.
Safety tip: If you have a central line, before removal, confirm the proper procedure is about to be followed. A copy of the nursing protocol for the removal of central lines can be found on ctsnet.org.18 Standard procedure protocols for central line removal in adults and pediatrics can also be found on health.ucsd.edu.19
Research suggests misdiagnoses may occur in 10 percent of all cases.
Safety tip: Trust your instincts. If you believe your doctor has missed something or misdiagnosed you, get a second opinion.
11. Receiving the wrong blood type during transfusion
During surgery, you will typically need a blood transfusion. The blood you receive — A, B or O, positive or negative — must match yours, as your body will interpret mismatched blood as a foreign invader. One of every 19,000 units of blood is incorrectly administered in the U.S.
Safety tip: Know your blood type and, if possible, verify that the blood bags you’re about to receive are a match. If you cannot see the bags ahead of time, ask hospital staff to verify they have your blood type correct prior to surgery.
10. Surgical equipment causing internal burns
A malfunction in the monitoring cable inserted through the heart during a routine bypass surgery causes the cable to heat up, cooking part of the patient’s heart, causing irreparable damage.
It sounds unbelievable, but it happened. The patient had to receive a full heart transplant. Lasers and flammable gases used in surgery can also cause unexpected burns. These kinds of errors are typically the result of multiple mistakes, not just one. Still, some 240 surgical fires are reported in American hospitals each year.
Safety tip: If undergoing surgery, ask what type of equipment will be used, and how you will be protected from lasers, cables and flammable gases.
9. Medical tube mix-ups
Feeding tubes and central line tubes look a lot alike, but knowing which is which is absolutely crucial when it comes time to administer nutrients or medication through the feeding tube. In the example shown in the video, medication meant for a young child’s stomach was administered into her vein, via the central line. The child died. Sixteen percent of doctors and nurses report being aware of tube mix-ups happening at their hospitals.
Safety tip: If you have more than one tube, ask medical staff to trace the tube back to its site of origin, each and every time a medication is administered to ensure the correct one is being used.
8. Switched biopsies
As many as 1 in 1,000 lab specimens is mislabeled. One 35-year-old woman got a double mastectomy due to her biopsy being switched with another woman’s. She got a second opinion, but the error was not caught because the second doctor simply based his findings on the original, mixed-up lab work.
Safety tip: If in doubt, ask to have the biopsy repeated and/or get a second (or third) opinion.
7. Receiving the wrong eggs in fertility treatment
Women undergoing fertility treatment face the unusual possibility of receiving the wrong woman’s eggs. In one case, eggs from two women with the same last name were accidentally switched. In this instance, the woman carried the baby to term, then adopted the baby boy out to his real parents.
Safety tip: Be very careful in your selection of a fertility clinic. Make sure the clinic is accredited by the College of American Pathologists.
6. Operating on the wrong body part
In the U.S., an estimated seven patients undergo surgery on the wrong body part each and every day.
Safety tip: Before surgery, confirm the correct location of the surgery — both body part and side — with the nurse and surgeon. Also make sure the surgeon has clearly marked the correct site. Considering the frequency at which this mistake occurs, do not be shy about doing this.
5. Unsafe radiation
Incorrectly programmed and calibrated CT scans can deliver an unsafe dose of radiation. The video shows three patients whose CT scans resulted in the loss of hair in a ring around their head. It turns out the machine was incorrectly calibrated, delivering eight times the normal dose of radiation. These patients now also face the possibility of getting brain cancer at some point in the future.
Safety tip: Whenever possible, opt for an ultrasound or MRI instead of a CT scan, as they do not use ionizing radiation to produce the image.
4. Hospital-acquired infections
Not only will 1 in 25 hospital patients contract an infection, many of these infectious pathogens are now resistant to all antibiotics. Antibiotic overuse, especially in agriculture, has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Hospital-acquired infections kill 75,000 patients each year in the U.S. — a death toll that could be significantly reduced simply by following proper handwashing protocols. Doctors and nurses should wash their hands and/or change gloves between each patient. Patients should also wash their hands frequently.
Safety tip: Each time hospital staff enters your room, ask them to wash their hands and change gloves. Bacteria can spread from their hands to tables, bed rails, bedding, wound dressings, catheters and, of course, your skin if they touch you. You may then contract the bacteria if you touch a contaminated area.
3. Metal in the MRI room
An MRI machine is an exceptionally powerful magnet, which is why no metals are allowed to be brought into the room. In one case, a hospital worker walks into the MRI room carrying an oxygen tank while a young boy is getting scanned. The tank flies across the room, delivering a lethal blow to the boy’s head. While exceedingly rare, an investigation reveals it is not the sole case on record.
Safety tip: When getting an MRI, make sure there is no metal on, in or around you, anywhere in the room. Metal implants must be reported prior to getting an MRI.
2. Excessive emergency room wait times
Emergency rooms are normally busy places, and personnel must make hundreds if not thousands of potentially critical decisions each day. It can be easy to miss the signs of critical illness, especially if the condition is rare.
In one case, a five-hour wait resulted in a baby girl requiring amputation of both hands and legs, as personnel failed to realize the critical nature of her condition. It turns out her body was being ravaged by flesh-eating bacteria. According to the CDC, the average emergency room wait time is 49 minutes.
Safety tip: If you suspect you or a loved one is in critical condition and need immediate attention, call your family physician before or on the way to the hospital, and ask him or her to call the emergency room on your behalf. This way, the staff know you’re on your way and that it’s truly serious.
1. Waking up during surgery (anesthesia awareness)
Last but not least, a nightmare come true: You wake up during surgery and feel every poke, prod and cut, but cannot move or make a sound.
“Anesthesia awareness,” the technical term for waking up during surgery, happens when you receive an inadequate dose of anesthesia, allowing your brain to remain aware while paralyzing your muscles. Here, the statistics are discouraging: 1 in 1,000 patients reportedly suffer anesthesia awareness. Fortunately, most of these do not feel pain.
Safety tip: If you need surgery, ask your surgeon if you really need anesthesia or if a local anesthetic would be sufficient.
Safeguarding Your Care While Hospitalized
Once you’re hospitalized, you’re immediately at risk for medical errors, so one of the best safeguards is to have someone there with you. Dr. Andrew Saul has written an entire book on the issue of safeguarding your health while hospitalized. Frequently, you’re going to be relatively debilitated, especially post-op when you’re under the influence of anesthesia, and you won’t have the opportunity to see the types of processes that are going on. This is particularly important for pediatric patients and the elderly.
It’s important to have a personal advocate present to ask questions and take notes. For every medication given in the hospital, ask questions such as: “What is this medication? What is it for? What’s the dose?” Most people, doctors and nurses included, are more apt to go through that extra step of due diligence to make sure they’re getting it right if they know they’ll be questioned about it.
If someone you know is scheduled for surgery, you can print out the World Health Organization’s surgical safety checklist and implementation manual,20 which is part of the campaign “Safe Surgery Saves Lives.” The checklist can be downloaded free of charge here. If a loved one is in the hospital, print it out and bring it with you, as this can help you protect your family member or friend from preventable errors in care.