Preventing Medical Errors

Course Highlights

  • In this Preventing Medical Errors course, we will learn about the different types and causes of medical errors. 
  • You’ll also learn the strategies and best practices aimed at preventing medical errors in healthcare settings. 
  • You’ll leave this course with a broader understanding of the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain patient safety. 


Contact Hours Awarded: 1.5

Course By:
Various Authors

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Medical errors remain a critical concern in healthcare, with potentially very serious consequences for patients and healthcare organizations (15). Recent statistics indicate that medical errors, including medication mistakes, surgical errors, and diagnostic inaccuracies, contribute to a staggering number of patient deaths annually in the United States (5). For instance, a patient might experience harm after receiving an incorrect medication dosage due to a prescription error, potentially leading to severe side effects or even death.  

The high statistics and effects of medical errors underscore the critical importance of comprehensively addressing this problem. To tackle this pressing issue, healthcare systems must implement a multifaceted approach that includes robust communication and teamwork among healthcare providers (11).  

By fostering a culture of safety and equipping healthcare professionals with the necessary tools and knowledge to prevent medical errors, healthcare organizations can work towards enhancing patient safety and reducing the associated human and financial costs. This course aims to equip healthcare professionals with the tools to prevent medical errors, improve healthcare quality, reduce harm, and improve patient outcomes.  

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. What is the primary objective of the course? 
  2. Why is it essential for healthcare professionals to understand how to prevent medical errors? 

Statistical Evidence 

Statistical evidence of medical errors serves as a reminder of the significant challenges facing healthcare systems and patients worldwide. A recent report from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement estimated that medical errors contribute to more than 250,000 deaths in the United States annually, making them a leading cause of mortality (5).  

Medical errors also result in substantial economic burdens. For example, a study published in Health Affairs estimated that medical errors cost the United States healthcare system $19.5 billion annually in extra healthcare spending (13). These costs encompass prolonged hospitalizations, additional treatments, legal expenses, and lost productivity.  

These statistics underscore the urgent need for comprehensive efforts to enhance patient safety, address the root causes of medical errors, and equip healthcare professionals with the knowledge and strategies necessary to prevent these costly and potentially fatal mistakes. 

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. According to recent statistics, what is the estimated annual cost of medical errors in the United States? 
  2. What is the estimated number of annual patient deaths attributed to preventable medical errors in the United States? 

Impact of Medical Errors 

Medical errors have far-reaching and profound consequences in American healthcare and globally, affecting patients, healthcare providers, and healthcare systems. These errors can result in serious harm, extended hospital stays, and even death, imposing immense physical and emotional burdens on patients and their families.  

For instance, a medication dosage error may lead to adverse drug reactions, prolonged hospitalization, and extensive medical costs. Beyond the individual level, medical errors strain healthcare resources and budgets, leading to increased healthcare expenditures and litigation costs for healthcare organizations. A recent report by (14), highlighted that healthcare-associated infections alone, often exacerbated by medical errors, cost the U.S. healthcare system billions of dollars annually (SHEA, 2020).  

Furthermore, medical errors erode public trust in healthcare institutions, hindering the delivery of effective care and undermining the overall quality of healthcare. Addressing medical errors is not only a moral imperative but also a financial and public health necessity to ensure safe and efficient healthcare delivery. 


Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. How do medical errors affect patients beyond physical harm?  
  2. Discuss the impact of medical errors on healthcare organizations, including financial implications. 

Injuries Caused by Medical Errors 

Medical errors have a wide-ranging impact on patients, often resulting in a spectrum of injuries that can vary from minor complications to severe and life-threatening consequences.  

Some examples of injuries caused by medical errors include the following:  

  • Injuries caused by medication errors: Patients may receive the incorrect drug, dosage, or route of administration. For example, a patient on a prescribed medication for hypertension might mistakenly receive a medication intended for a different condition, leading to adverse drug reactions, allergic responses, or, in extreme cases, fatal overdoses (2).  
  • Injuries caused by surgical errors: Surgical errors represent a significant risk, encompassing scenarios like wrong-site surgeries or the retention of surgical instruments within a patient's body. In the event of a wrong-site surgery or retention of surgical instruments within a patient’s body, a patient may undergo an additional surgery or unnecessary procedure, leading to complications, extended hospital stays, and long-term physical and emotional repercussions (9). 
  • Injuries caused by diagnostic errors: Diagnostic errors, such as misdiagnoses or delayed diagnoses, present another facet of medical errors. These errors can have profound consequences as they may lead to patients receiving inappropriate treatments or experiencing disease progression due to the delay in receiving the correct diagnosis. For instance, a delayed cancer diagnosis might result in the cancer advancing to a more advanced and less treatable stage (4).  
  • Injuries caused by lapses in infection control measures within healthcare settings: These lapses can contribute to hospital-acquired infections, resulting in complications, prolonged hospitalization, and increased healthcare costs (18). 
  • Psychological injuries: Beyond the physical harm, medical errors can also inflict psychological injuries, with patients and their families often experiencing anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other emotional distress, especially in cases involving severe harm or near misses.  


These different types of injuries underscore the complex and far-reaching impact of medical errors on patients' physical and emotional well-being, emphasizing the critical need for comprehensive strategies to prevent the errors causing them. 

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. Provide an example of a medical error that can result in injuries to patients. 
  2. How can healthcare-associated infections be linked to medical errors? 

How Medical Errors Can Cause Death 

Medical errors can tragically lead to patient deaths through several pathways, each emphasizing the dire consequences of possible systemic failures within healthcare systems.  

Let’s discuss some examples below.  

  • One of the most pervasive types of medical errors that can cause death is medication errors, where patients may inadvertently receive the wrong drug or an incorrect dosage. Such errors can result in fatal overdoses or severe adverse reactions, contributing to patient fatalities (8). For instance, administering a medication intended for another patient with a similar name can lead to grave consequences, highlighting the critical importance of medication safety measures. 
  • Surgical errors represent another alarming category, encompassing scenarios like wrong-site surgeries or complications during procedures. In cases of wrong-site surgery, patients may undergo unnecessary procedures, while complications can lead to severe infections or life-threatening hemorrhages. These errors can result in fatal infections or excessive blood loss, ultimately contributing to patient deaths (10).  
  • Diagnostic errors, where conditions are misdiagnosed or diagnosed too late, pose additional challenges. These errors can lead to treatment delays, allowing diseases to progress unchecked and reach an advanced, untreatable stage, further underscoring the significance of accurate and timely diagnosis in patient outcomes (4).  
  • Lastly, lapses in infection control practices can lead to healthcare-associated infections, potentially culminating in sepsis and organ failure, with the dire consequence of patient deaths (18).  


These examples collectively emphasize the imperative of enhancing patient safety and mitigating medical errors to prevent the diverse ways in which they can tragically lead to the loss of life. 

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. Can medical errors lead to patient death? 
  2. Explain two examples of how medical errors can lead to patient deaths.  

Cost of Medical Errors 

The link between medical errors and the cost of healthcare is a substantial and concerning issue. Medical errors lead to significant financial burdens on healthcare systems, patients, and society at large. For example, a study published in Health Affairs estimated that medical errors in the United States cost an astonishing $19.5 billion annually in extra healthcare spending (13).  

These costs encompass a range of factors, including extended hospital stays, additional medical procedures to address complications, and increased medication and treatment expenses. Moreover, medical errors can result in costly litigation, settlements, and insurance premiums for healthcare organizations.  

In addition to direct costs, indirect costs such as lost productivity due to disabilities resulting from medical errors can further inflate the economic toll. These findings underscore that addressing medical errors is not only crucial for patient safety but also for reducing the financial strain on healthcare systems and individuals. 



Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. What are the financial costs associated with medical errors for healthcare organizations? 
  2. What indirect costs are associated with medical errors, and how do they contribute to the overall financial burden? 

Types of Medical Errors 

There are several types of medical errors, with each one carrying the potential to harm patients in distinct ways.  

Let’s discuss examples of types of medical errors below.   

  • Medication errors, which occur during prescribing, dispensing, or administering medications. Such errors can lead to adverse drug reactions, with patients suffering severe side effects or other harmful consequences. 
  • Surgical errors represent another critical facet of medical errors, including alarming scenarios such as wrong-site surgery or the unintentional retention of surgical instruments within a patient's body.  
  • Diagnostic errors form yet another category of medical errors, encompassing scenarios where conditions are misdiagnosed or diagnosed too late. These errors can result in delayed or inappropriate treatments, potentially enabling diseases to progress unchecked.  
  • Communication errors, a common type of medical error, involve miscommunication among healthcare providers. Such errors may lead to misunderstandings about patient care plans, hindering the delivery of optimal care (15). 
  • Infection control lapses are another concerning category, contributing to healthcare-associated infections. Scenarios like improper hand hygiene can lead to the spread of infections within healthcare facilities, posing risks to patients, staff, and visitors alike (18).  
Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. Name three common types of medical errors discussed in the course. 
  2. Describe a scenario illustrating a communication error in healthcare. 
  3. Provide a real-world example of a medication error. 
  4. Explain a scenario demonstrating a surgical error and its consequences. 

Examples of medical error 

This topic explores examples of medical errors that have occurred within healthcare settings, to illustrate their diverse nature and potential consequences. By examining the examples of how medical errors occur, learners gain insight into the critical importance of identifying and addressing the errors, to enhance patient safety and minimize harm in healthcare practice.  

Let’s discuss the examples below.  

  • Medication errors, such as administering the wrong medication or dosage, can occur when a nurse misinterprets a physician's handwritten prescription.  
  • Surgical errors may involve performing surgery on the wrong patient or body part, as in a scenario where a patient undergoes knee surgery intended for another individual with a similar name.  
  • Diagnostic errors may manifest when a radiologist misinterprets an X-ray, leading to a delayed or incorrect diagnosis.  
  • Communication errors can arise when healthcare providers fail to share critical information, potentially leading to a patient receiving a medication they are allergic to, due to a lack of allergy documentation in their medical records.

Preventing Medical Errors 

Preventing medical errors is an endeavor that hinges on a combination of strategies, encompassing rigorous communication, technological solutions, standardized procedures, quality improvement initiatives, and education programs across healthcare settings.  

Let’s see some examples below. 

  • Prevention through effective communication and teamwork among healthcare providers: This is exemplified by the implementation of structured handoff protocols during shift changes, ensuring that critical patient information is accurately and comprehensively shared among care teams. By fostering transparent and efficient communication, healthcare organizations can mitigate the risk of errors stemming from misunderstandings or miscommunications. 
  • Prevention through harnessing technology to bolster error prevention efforts: Electronic prescribing systems with built-in error checks offer a powerful tool to reduce medication errors. These systems can flag potential issues, such as medication interactions or dosing errors, before prescriptions are finalized, thereby enhancing medication safety.  
  • Prevention using standardized checklists: In surgical settings, the utilization of standardized checklists has proven effective in preventing wrong-site surgeries. These checklists mandate the verification of critical details, including patient identity, procedure, and surgical site, before the commencement of surgery. Such standardized procedures serve as essential safeguards against critical surgical errors. 
  • Prevention through continuous quality improvement: Continuous quality improvement initiatives are essential components of a proactive approach to error prevention. After adverse events occur, healthcare organizations often conduct root cause analysis to identify system weaknesses and implement necessary changes to prevent similar errors from recurring. This process of introspection and improvement not only rectifies specific issues but also bolsters overall patient safety protocols (15). 
  • Prevention through education: Education and training programs tailored for healthcare providers play a pivotal role in error prevention. These programs emphasize patient safety principles and error recognition, empowering healthcare professionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to identify, prevent, and mitigate errors in clinical practice. By nurturing a culture of safety that values continuous learning and the integration of safety measures into daily practice, healthcare systems can proactively work to minimize the occurrence of medical errors and enhance patient safety. 
Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. What strategies can healthcare organizations implement to create a culture of safety? 
  2. How can standardized checklists prevent surgical errors?

Current Research 

Current research on medical errors continues to explore various facets of this critical issue in healthcare. For example, recent studies have investigated the impact of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning in identifying and mitigating medical errors, offering potential solutions for early error detection (16). Researchers are also delving into the role of healthcare culture and organizational factors in error prevention, examining how organizational culture can be optimized to promote patient safety (17).  

Additionally, ongoing research is exploring the effectiveness of interdisciplinary training programs that simulate real-world scenarios to enhance teamwork and communication among healthcare providers, reducing errors in clinical practice (3). These emerging research areas offer promising insights and strategies for addressing medical errors and improving patient safety in healthcare settings. 

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. What recent research area explores the role of artificial intelligence in preventing medical errors? 
  2. How can interdisciplinary team training programs contribute to error prevention? 

Bedside Strategies 

Bedside strategies are crucial in preventing medical errors, as they empower healthcare providers to identify and mitigate potential risks directly at the patient's bedside.  

Examples of bedside strategies that not only enhance patient safety but also empower healthcare providers to actively engage in error prevention at the point of care include the following:  

  • Using transparent and purposeful "time-out" procedures before surgical interventions, where the entire surgical team pauses to verify the patient's identity, procedure, and surgical site, to help prevent wrong-site surgeries (12).  
  •  Using effective barcode scanning technology at the bedside to confirm the accuracy of medication administration, ensuring that patients receive the correct medications and dosages.  
  • Using thorough handoffs during nursing shift changes to allow for direct communication between nurses, reducing the risk of information gaps and miscommunication.  
  • Implementing medication reconciliation protocols by thoroughly reviewing a patient's medication history and comparing it to the prescribed medications at the bedside, to identify discrepancies and prevent potential medication errors. For instance, if a patient mentions taking a medication that is not listed in their current prescription, this can trigger a thorough investigation to avoid drug interactions or duplications that could lead to adverse effects. Research by (11), highlights the significance of medication reconciliation in reducing medication errors and enhancing patient safety at the bedside. 
  • Using efficient patient identifiers, such as wristbands and two-factor identification, to prevent wrong-patient errors. In scenarios where patients share similar names or medical records, verifying the patient's identity before administering treatments or procedures is critical. For example, before administering medications, nurses can cross-reference the patient's identification wristband with the medication order, ensuring that the right patient receives the right medication and dosage. Studies, like the one by (7), emphasize the effectiveness of patient identification strategies in preventing wrong-patient errors and the potential harm they can cause. 





Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. What is a "time-out" procedure in healthcare, and how does it help prevent errors? 
  2. Describe the role of barcode scanning technology in medication error prevention. 

Organizational Strategies 

Organizational strategies play a pivotal role in preventing medical errors and fostering a culture of patient safety. Recent research by (15), underscores the importance of promoting a culture of safety within healthcare organizations.  

Examples of organizational strategies that not only prevent medical errors but also contribute to a safer and more effective healthcare environment include the following:  

  • Creating an environment where healthcare providers feel comfortable reporting errors and near misses without fear of retribution, allowing for comprehensive analysis and error prevention.  
  • Implementing computerized physician order entry (CPOE) systems with clinical decision support, which can help identify potential medication errors by flagging contraindications, potential drug interactions, or dosage errors (1). 
  • Using interdisciplinary team training programs, such as simulations of complex clinical scenarios to enhance teamwork and communication among healthcare professionals, reducing the likelihood of errors related to miscommunication or coordination failures.  
  • Implementing standardized protocols and procedures across healthcare units to reduce variation and improve consistency in care delivery. For instance, the Universal Protocol for preventing wrong-site surgeries mandates preoperative verification of patient identity, procedure, and surgical site, as well as the marking of the surgical site (6).  
  • Encouraging a culture of open communication and reporting of errors without fear of reprisal, enabling the identification of system weaknesses and the implementation of corrective actions to prevent recurrence (15).  
Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. Why is fostering a culture of safety essential in healthcare organizations?
  2. How can computerized physician order entry (CPOE) systems contribute to error reduction? 


    Preventing medical errors is very important, as these errors pose significant threats to patient safety and incur substantial costs for healthcare organizations. By fostering a culture of safety and equipping healthcare professionals with the necessary tools and knowledge to prevent medical errors, healthcare organizations can work towards enhancing patient safety and reducing the associated human and financial costs. 

    This course has provided healthcare professionals with a comprehensive understanding of the critical issue of medical errors, in addition to equipping them with invaluable strategies to enhance patient safety. Healthcare professionals have been empowered to actively engage in recognizing and preventing errors, contributing to the improvement of patient safety and healthcare quality. In an era where healthcare is increasingly complex and technology-driven, the knowledge and skills gained in this course are essential for safeguarding patients from the far-reaching and costly impacts of medical errors. 

    As healthcare professionals continue their careers, they are now better equipped to champion patient safety, implement error prevention strategies, and provide higher-quality care to those they serve. 

    References + Disclaimer

    1. Ash, J. S., Sittig, D. F., Dykstra, R., Campbell, E., & Guappone, K. (2019). The unintended consequences of computerized provider order entry: Findings from a mixed methods exploration. International Journal of Medical Informatics, 125, 385-394.  
    2. Bates, D. W., Singh, H., & Phillips, R. S. (2015). Medication errors: How common are they and what can be done to prevent them? Journal of General Internal Medicine, 30(6), 731-732.  
    3. Eppich, W. J., CichoskiKelly, E., & Zonfrillo, M. R. (2019). Making high stakes out of team training: A pediatric simulation competition to improve team behaviors. Simulation in Healthcare, 14(2), 91-100.  
    4. Graber, M. L., Wachter, R. M., & Cassel, C. K. (2018). Bringing diagnosis into the quality and safety equations. JAMA, 320(18), 1859-1860.  
    5. Institute for Healthcare Improvement. (2020). Patient safety primer: Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Retrieved from  
    6. Joint Commission. (2021). Universal Protocol for preventing wrong site, wrong procedure, and wrong person surgery. Retrieved from  
    7. Koppel, R., Coles, C., & Fost, N. (2018). Two methods to prevent patient misidentification. Journal of the American Medical Association, 319(11), 1151-1152.  
    8. Leape, L. L., Berwick, D. M., & Bates, D. W. (2019). What practices will most improve safety? Evidence-based medicine meets patient safety. JAMA, 321(8), 747-748. 
    9. Makary, M. A., & Daniel, M. (2016). Medical error—the third leading cause of death in the US. BMJ, 353, i2139.  
    10. Mehtsun, W. T., Ibrahim, A. M., Diener-West, M., Pronovost, P. J., & Makary, M. A. (2013). Surgical never events in the United States. Surgery, 153(4), 465-472.  
    11. Mueller, S. K., Sponsler, K. C., Kripalani, S., Schnipper, J. L. (2018). Hospital-based medication reconciliation practices: A systematic review. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172(14), 1057-1069. 
    12. Pucher, P. H., Johnston, M. J., Aggarwal, R., Arora, S., Darzi, A., & Vincent, C. A. (2020). Effectiveness of interventions to improve patient handover in surgery: A systematic review. Surgery, 155(1), 21-30.  
    13. Shreve, J., Van Den Bos, J., Gray, T., & Halford, M. (2019). The Economic Measurement of Medical Errors. Health Affairs, 38(4), 654-661. 
    14. Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA). (2020). Antimicrobial stewardship and the importance of diagnostics. Retrieved from  
    15. Sorra, J., Khanna, K., Dyer, N., Mardon, R., Famolaro, T., Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture: 2018 User Database Report, AHRQ Publication No. 18-0033, Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. October 2018. 
    16. Topol, E. J. (2019). High-performance medicine: The convergence of human and artificial intelligence. Nature Medicine, 25(1), 44-56. 
    17. Weaver, S. J., Che, X., & Petersen, L. A. (2020). Organizational culture and leadership, clinician burnout and satisfaction, and patient safety in rural hospitals. Health Care Management Review, 45(3), 235-244. 
    18. Weber, D. J., Rutala, W. A., & Miller, M. B. (2013). Role of hospital surfaces in the transmission of emerging health care–associated pathogens: Norovirus, Clostridium difficile, and Acinetobacter species. American Journal of Infection Control, 41(5 Suppl), S12-S19. 



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