Understanding the Difference Between Mistakes and Medical Negligence

February 28, 2023 | - News & Insights

Doctors and other healthcare professionals are held to the highest standard of care among all professions. The medical profession requires aspiring doctors to undergo years of study and training in an attempt to ensure that only the most competent individuals are allowed to practice medicine. But doctors are only human, and all humans make mistakes. Medical mistakes are unfortunately common, with one study suggesting that medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. However, medical mistakes are not necessarily medical negligence, nor do they always rise to the level of medical malpractice. There is a fine line between medical mistakes and medical negligence, as our North Carolina medical malpractice attorneys explain. 

Medical Mistakes 

Medical mistakes are the “failure of a planned action to be completed as intended or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim.” Some medical mistakes result in adverse events in patients, which generally are defined as injuries caused by medical intervention rather than injuries caused by or due to the patient’s underlying condition. Medical mistakes are not the result of intentional actions by medical professionals but rather unintentional actions caused by miscommunications, organizational failures, inadequate information flow, and other issues. 

Examples of Medical Mistakes

Given the human capacity for error in the practice of medicine, medical mistakes can be found in every medical specialty and can be made by healthcare professionals of all experience levels. Some of the most common medical mistakes include: 

  • Diagnostic errors, including misdiagnosis, failure to diagnose, and delayed diagnosis 
  • Medication errors, such as prescribing the wrong medication or dosage, administering the medication the wrong way, or prescribing a medication to which the patient is allergic 
  • Surgical errors, such as “wrong site, wrong patient, or wrong procedure” errors 
  • Labor and delivery errors, such as failure to perform a Caesarean section or failure to monitor the baby and mother’s vital signs
  • Failure to obtain informed consent, such as by failing to disclose the full range of risks inherent in a procedure or failing to explain alternative treatments 
  • Infections and complications from surgery, such as sepsis or unnecessary scarring or disfigurement 
  • Discharging a patient prematurely or failing to follow up with a patient  
  • Leaving a medical implement inside a patient’s body after surgery 
  • Failure to instruct a patient on proper self-care

Not all medical mistakes are necessarily harmful to a patient. For example, a surgeon during the course of a procedure may accidentally make a small cut to a nearby organ or artery, but the wound is quickly closed and results in no adverse effect on the patient. While a mistake may have been made in that situation, it did not result in harm to the patient. 

While many medical mistakes are harmless, some are not; if you have been accused of committing a medical mistake that resulted in harm to a patent, you should consider speaking to a North Carolina medical malpractice attorney

Medical Negligence 

Just as not all medical mistakes cause harm to patients, not all medical mistakes rise to the level of medical negligence. Only mistakes that were the result of acts or omissions that deviated from the relevant standard of care can be considered medical negligence. Therein lies the distinction between mistakes and legally actionable mistakes. 

Most personal injury cases proceed on a theory of negligence, including medical malpractice cases. The four elements of negligence in the medical malpractice context are: 

  • Duty: The duty owed by medical professionals to treat their patients in accordance with the relevant standard of care
  • Breach: An action or omission by the defendant that deviates from the relevant standard of care
  • Causation: The defendant’s breach of their duty caused the patient’s injury
  • Damages: The patient suffered damages as a result of the defendant’s breach 

If the plaintiff fails to prove any one of these four elements, he or she does not have a case for medical negligence. 

The Standard of Care 

There are two key issues in most medical negligence claims: (1) establishing the relevant standard of care owed to the patient and (2) establishing that the defendant’s act or omission was a deviation from that standard of care. According to North Carolina law, no healthcare provider may be liable for damages unless: 

…the trier of fact finds by the greater weight of the evidence that the care of such health care provider was not in accordance with the standards of practice among members of the same health care profession with similar training and experience situated in the same or similar communities under the same or similar circumstances at the time of the alleged act giving rise to the cause of action…

To determine the relevant standard of care, litigants typically present expert witnesses to testify as to the relevant standards and practices in the medical specialty at issue in the geographic area where the events giving rise to the litigation occurred.

Examples of Medical Negligence 

Whether a mistake amounts to negligence depends upon the facts of the case and the standard of care in the medical practice. However, below are a few examples of mistakes that could, under the right circumstances, be considered medical negligence. 

  • Prescribing a medication to which a patient is allergic after failing to consult the patient’s medical records
  • Misdiagnosing a patient after failing to review all diagnostic reports and lab results 
  • Failing to disclose all risks associated with a procedure and the patient suffers one of the non-disclosed risks 
  • Failing to check the blood type of an organ donor before performing an organ transplant 
  • Failing to perform a mammogram on a patient who had previously recovered from breast cancer 
  • Amputating a patient’s left leg instead of his or her right leg
  • Performing a medical procedure under the influence of drugs or alcohol 

Beat Accusations of Medical Negligence with Help from a North Carolina Medical Malpractice Attorney

Bad results do not necessarily indicate negligence. Injuries and complications can arise even from the most flawlessly executed medical procedures. If you have been accused of medical negligence leading to injury, please contact a North Carolina medical malpractice attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.

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Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby, P.A.

325 Pollock Street, PO Drawer 1168,
New Bern, NC 28563

Tel: 252-638-6666
Fax: 252-638-3542

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