Medical Issues

When Health Professionals Fail

The major ways doctors and nurses drop the ball on providing standard care

Our doctors, surgeons and nurses are held to high standards. Because they undergo extensive training and are licensed, we think of them as experienced and professional. Naturally, we trust them to do everything within their powers to avoid mistakes that would put us or our loved ones’ quality of life at serious risk.

But errors can and do happen. Medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University, claiming more than 251,000 deaths annually.

Whether it’s the wrong diagnosis, inexperience with equipment or improper communication among medical staff, mistakes at the hands of doctors and nurses can lead to catastrophic injuries, permanent impairment, even death. These are just some examples of medical negligence that can lead to medical malpractice lawsuits.

Surgical errors: Slip of the scalpel

“I’ve heard my share of horror stories about botched surgeries. Among the many med-mal cases I’ve handled, the following was involved:
• “Unsanitary surgical instruments being used: Not having the instruments sterilized increases the odds of cross-contamination, infection and sepsis occurring.
• “Surgical instruments left in the body: All surgical instruments — even gauze and sponges — must be counted before and after surgery. When one is left accidentally in the patient’s body and stitched up, the patient is at high risk of serious complications and infection.
• “Internal organ damage: Organs are very delicate. They are prone to being perforated or punctured with a scalpel or laser. If an organ near the site of the surgery is damaged, that organ could possibly seep septic fluid to another organ.
• “Unnecessary or incorrect surgeries: Just imagine your spouse going into the operating room for a leg amputation, but the surgeon amputates the wrong leg. Or your child’s chart calls for one type of surgery, but the doctor performs a different one based on a different patient’s chart that somehow mistakenly made its way to the OR.

“Each of these instances is a possible cause of a med-mal lawsuit.”
Bob Giroux of Giroux Pappas Trial Attorneys, a 25-year personal injury and medical malpractice attorney

The wrong diagnosis: Molehill was actually a mountain

A doctor’s misdiagnosis of a medical condition, injury or illness is just as bad as negligence during surgery. Such an error can lead to incorrect or delayed treatment — or even no treatment at all — and the patient can develop complications or die because of it. A doctor might have looked at an X-ray and made a quick determination about what the patient had, but because the patient’s symptoms should have prompted further testing, he breached the standard of care. If other reasonably competent doctors would have made the correct medical call, the patient could have a good med-mal case.

For example, a New York doctor found a lump in his patient’s breast. The doctor said it was a clogged milk duct that would heal itself. But the lump never dissipated — it actually swelled to the size of a golf ball, and the patient found out too late that she had breast cancer. She sued the doctor for his misdiagnosis, which caused her to undergo a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. A jury in 2012 awarded the woman $15 million.

Lack of informed consent: You never gave me a choice

As a patient, you are the decision-maker over what treatment you receive. Your doctor has an obligation to tell you — as explicitly as possible — everything you need to know about a treatment or options for treatment. By doing so, you are making an informed decision about what you’d like done. This is called informed consent.

But what happens if you’re not told by your doctor about the procedure? Let’s say the surgeon failed to tell you that the procedure involves a high risk of permanent numbness on one side of your face — and that’s exactly what’s discovered when you recuperate. Even if the surgery was otherwise carried out perfectly, you may be able to sue the doctor for your numbness, because you might have opted to not go ahead with this surgery had you been informed of the risk of numbness.

Treatment against a patient’s wishes: I told you no

It may not be in the best interests of the patient, but doctors and hospitals do not have a right to operate on a patient who refuses medical treatment.

Why would a patient say no to treatment, especially if it would save his/her life? There are a number of reasons. The procedure might cost too much. The patient personally weighed out the pros-and-cons and decided that the pain is bearable compared to the surgery. There could be religious objections to a proposed course of treatment. Or a patient’s living will has end-of-life directives.

When a patient makes a decision to refuse treatment, a doctor cannot provide it. Even if the doctor decides to go ahead with the treatment anyway, and the treatment is successful, that doctor may still be sued for med-mal because he went against the patient’s wishes.

Childbirth injuries: Newborn tragedy

Some of the most tragic medical malpractice cases are childbirth injuries. Before the infant even has a chance to live a normal life, he/she has undergone horrific bodily damage because the physician or obstetrician did the wrong thing before or during delivery.

Prenatally, the doctor could fail to diagnose the mother’s medical condition (such as preeclampsia, anemia or gestational diabetes) or a disease that could be contagious to the fetus (including genital herpes or neonatal lupus). During labor, the physician might not anticipate birth complications such as the umbilical cord getting tangled and causing a brain injury. And if the physician doesn’t order a Cesarean section because the baby is too large, the infant could suffer fractured bones in the doctor’s attempts at vaginal delivery. There are a very many possible causes of birth injuries.

Where the burden stands for nurses

As with doctors, nurses also are licensed medical professionals, and their mistakes can be grounds for a med-mal suit. If a nurse does not meet the accepted standards of practice, he/she may be found liable if his/her negligence caused a patient harm.

These are such examples:

Failure to use equipment properly: What does this button do?
Suppose a nurse is asked by a doctor to use a particular machine on a patient during recovery. The nurse had never been trained to use that machine but, because she doesn’t want to go against the doctor’s instructions, decides to wing it. Moments later, a jolt from the machine causes the patient to convulse and roll off the bed, breaking his hip. This is actionable because the nurse didn’t do her due diligence by asking someone else, perhaps a supervisor, how to use the machine.

Other examples include the nurse using or hooking up a machine for something other than its intended use; not fully charging a machine before using it; or not following manufacturer guidelines when using it and injuring the patient because of it.

Lack of documentation: What do you mean you didn’t write it down?
The nurse taking care of your spouse discovers something on the skin that looks like an unusually colored mole. She tells the doctor and the next shift’s nurse about it, but doesn’t write down that she told them. The skin abnormality turns out to be a cancer, which has spread because it wasn’t diagnosed in time. Because the nurse didn’t write down that she told the doctor or anyone else about it, this is actionable, as the court isn’t presented with any written proof of her telling anyone about the lesion. If it wasn’t documented, it’s as though it didn’t happen.

Other actionable incidents? A nurse initially marking in her report that she provided specific care to the patient but, because she got pulled away right after writing it down, not following through on that care. Or the nurse not writing down a medication’s specific dosage, which results in another nurse administering the wrong amount and overdosing the patient.

Failure to monitor: You were watching, weren’t you?
Part of a nurse’s job is to routinely check on patients at particular intervals. For example, assume that during one of these checks the patient is complaining of increased pain. The nurse gives the patient a pain reliever and doesn’t return until the patient’s next scheduled check time. When she does return, the patient is unresponsive. It’s later determined that the patient suffered a stroke. This can be grounds for a med-mal suit because the nurse should have monitored the patient more frequently once he complained of increased pain.

If a patient is showing warning signs, a nurse must follow more than just doctor’s orders or standard protocol. As part of their training, nurses are taught that they should rely on their instincts — not assumptions — when it comes to the health and stability of a patient.

Failure to communicate: Isn’t anyone talking to each other?
Your uncle is recovering from surgery. The nurse on duty finds him sweaty and breathing heavy. She checks his temperature and finds it’s at 101, which is above normal. But instead of consulting with her supervisor or letting the physician-on-duty know, the nurse simply marks the temperature on your uncle’s chart before leaving for the day. Your uncle falls into a coma an hour later. Because she didn’t let someone know immediately that your uncle had developed a fever, his onset symptoms progressed to a tragic point, and your family now has grounds to sue.

When it comes to caring for your health or the health of your loved ones, the entire medical staff must know everything that’s going on — often times immediately. It takes just one missed, delayed or inaccurate message for the chain to break down and a patient’s health to fail because of it.

What should you do if you or your love one is a victim of medical malpractice?

If you were injured or a loved one died as the result of a surgical error, you should call Giroux Pappas Trial Attorneys. Our lawyers help clients obtain the compensation they need and deserve due to an act of medical negligence.

We develop strong cases by consulting with world-class medical experts who help us identify the medical negligence that caused our clients’ injuries, and we have the resources to handle complex med-mal cases.

The consultation is free, and you pay nothing until we recover for you.

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Carri Whittemore

Carri Whittemore's Bio

She is passionate about digging deep into medical information for the answers that will ensure her clients receive the justice that they deserve. She has long standing relationships with experts in the medical field that she can call on to support her cases and she is sought out by the partners to lend her expertise in working up a case for trial.