Researchers from Johns Hopkins University made headlines in 2016 when they published a study claiming medical errors were the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. According to their statistical extrapolation, as many as 250,000 deaths happen yearly due to medical errors in healthcare.

Subsequent work has raised questions about the study’s conclusions. But even if the study overstated its numbers, healthcare providers may be responsible for tens of thousands of medical error deaths and injuries each year.

What Are Medical Errors?

Medical providers and their insurers use many related and ill-defined terms. Some phrases used to describe problems you might encounter while receiving medical care include:

Medical Error

Not every unwanted outcome constitutes a medical error. Unwanted outcomes can happen even when you receive top-quality healthcare. 

Instead, a medical error has two characteristics:

“Preventable” means that the error resulted from a breakdown in delivering medical services. 

An event might qualify as preventable when it results from:

  • Fatigue
  • Carelessness
  • Lack of training or supervision
  • Intoxication
  • Unskilled care
  • Records mix-ups

An event fails to meet the applicable standard when it is objectively unreasonable. One way to test whether a medical provider met the standard of care is to ask if a reasonable practitioner in the same situation would have handled your care differently.

Another way to determine reasonableness is to look at whether the practitioner knew or should have known their actions could harm the patient.

Adverse Event

An adverse event has a definition that is both broader and narrower than a medical error. 

An adverse event happens when a patient suffers any unwanted harm, such as injuries caused by:

At the same time, when a healthcare provider commits an error, it might not trigger an adverse event. Some medical errors are harmless. 

Some examples of harmless errors include:

  • An error that gets corrected before you suffer any physical or mental injury
  • An error that cannot harm you, such as a pill bottle with a typo in your name
  • A mistake that does not alter or affect your treatment

Thus, a medical mistake becomes an adverse event when it injures or kills a patient.

Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice is a legal term that equates to medical negligence. 

An act constitutes negligence when the victim can prove four elements:

  • Duty
  • Breach of duty
  • Damages
  • Causation

A medical error roughly equals a breach of duty. An adverse event roughly matches the damages and causation elements. The law adds the requirement that the doctor owes a legal duty to the victim.

The duty comes from the doctor-patient relationship. This duty exists in most cases. But in some rare fact patterns, the relationship might not exist. For example, the doctor might have declined to treat the patient, or the patient might have terminated the doctor before the alleged error.

What Are the Most Common Types of Medical Mistakes?

Medical mistakes fall into three broad categories:

  • Diagnosis errors
  • Treatment errors
  • Communication errors

Diagnosis errors happen when a doctor assesses the patient and incorrectly determines the conditions, diseases, or injuries the patient has. Treatment errors happen when a patient receives substandard treatment. Communication errors happen when communications between treatment providers or between the doctor and patient break down.

Using these categories, some common types of medical errors in healthcare include:


A misdiagnosis happens when a doctor or dentist diagnoses you with a condition you do not have. This could occur when you receive a diagnosis of one condition when you have a different condition. It can also occur when you are diagnosed with a condition when you are healthy.

Misdiagnosis can happen through careless or unskilled medical care. 

It can also happen when a laboratory makes a mistake by:

  • Conducting the wrong test
  • Misreading the test results
  • Mixing up your file with someone else’s records

A misdiagnosis can expose you to unnecessary treatment that physically harms you. It can also cause mental anguish as you cope with the fear and anxiety of your “illness.”


Non-diagnosis happens when a medical practitioner fails to diagnose you with a condition you have. In other words, the practitioner diagnoses you as healthy when you have a disease, condition, or injury.

A non-diagnosis can cost you valuable time to receive treatment and therapy. Your condition might worsen. In some cases, a non-diagnosis can delay a patient so long that their treatable illness becomes terminal. For example, a non-diagnosis of cancer might allow the cancer to spread to your brain, making survival much less likely.

Surgical Mistakes

Surgical mistakes can take many forms, including:

Surgical mistakes also include unskilled or intoxicated doctors performing surgery. For example, a surgeon with failing eyesight may accidentally cut into healthy tissue.

The fault for errors during surgery can fall on surgeons, nurses, and support staff. The fault can even fall on hospitals and administrators who mix up files or fail to gather information from patients.

Medication Errors

Common medication errors include:

  • Prescribing the wrong medication
  • Instructing patients to take the wrong dose
  • Incorrectly filling a prescription with the wrong medicine, dose, or concentration
  • Providing a medicine despite a patient’s known allergy

Medication errors can result from carelessness or record mix-ups. It can also happen due to breakdowns in communication between pharmacists and doctors.

Record Mix-Ups

Your medical records contain essential information for your healthcare providers, including:

  • Pre-existing conditions
  • Allergies
  • Weight, often used to calculate doses of medicine or anesthesia
  • Symptoms

A doctor who receives records with incomplete or incorrect information might commit an error unknowingly. But, a legal doctrine called vicarious liability places the legal blame for an employee’s mistakes on their employer. As a result, a doctor, medical practice, or hospital may still bear liability for record mix-ups committed by administrative workers.

It’s Best To Consult an Experienced Attorney To Help Prove a Medical Malpractice Claim

Proving a medical malpractice claim often requires an experienced medical malpractice attorney and expert witnesses. Together, this team can determine what errors happened and who bears the liability for your losses. 

If you have suffered an adverse event due to a medical error, contact a Houston medical malpractice lawyer to learn about your legal options.

Contact the Houston Medical Malpractice Lawyers at Attorney Brian White Personal Injury Lawyers For Help

For more information, contact the Houston medical malpractice law firm of Attorney Brian White Personal Injury Lawyers by calling (713) 500-5000.

Attorney Brian White Personal Injury Lawyers
3120 Southwest Freeway, Suite 350
Houston, TX 77098
United States

Attorney Brian White Personal Injury Lawyers – East Fwy
11811 East Fwy, Suite 630-06
Houston, TX 77029
United States

Attorney Brian White Personal Injury Lawyers – South Loop
2600 S Loop W, Suite 293
Houston, TX 77054
United States