250,000 deaths per year are caused by medical error – what causes these errors in the chaos of emergency departments?
By Benjamin Schnapp
Medical errors are estimated to cause 250,000 deaths per year in the US. Previously, research on patients admitted to a medical service has suggested that errors are due to problems with the way doctors process all the data they have about the patient – in other words, doctors have the right information, but don’t act on it in the best way.
Chaotic environment with frequent interruptions
The emergency department is a very different clinical environment from the inpatient wards, with frequent interruptions and often incomplete or unreliable information. Despite this, a new study published in the journal Diagnosis shows that doctors in an emergency department with trainees make similar types of errors to those made in admitted patients – more information processing errors are made than errors of inadequate knowledge or inadequate information.
Determining when mistakes are made
Researchers looked at patients who came back to emergency departments a second time within 72 hours and were then admitted to the hospital on their second visit – an indicator that something might have been done wrong during their first visit. A trained team of physicians looked at each case to determine whether the team might have made a mistake during the patient’s first visit, and if one was found, determined the type of mistake that was made.
The researchers found that errors in the emergency department occurred in a similar pattern to the errors seen on the medical service. Despite the chaotic environment, doctors in the emergency department seem to gather the right information from patients and know enough about the diseases they are seeing.
Understanding why is critical
However, errors happen when doctors interpret the information and test results that they gather. The study also found that patients with abdominal complaints may be particularly vulnerable to these errors.
Study author Benjamin Schnapp said, “It’s critical that we understand how and why these errors happen so that we can start to work to prevent them, and this is one small step towards that.”
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