Medical Errors

What are medical errors? 

Medical errors are called many different things.  They are sometimes referred to as 'complications',  'unexpected outcomes', 'hospital acquired conditions' or 'HACS', 'iatrogenic errors', 'adverse events' or 'never events' (the most serious type that should never happen to anyone).  What these things all have in common is they are a leading cause of preventable harm and death, are very costly physically, emotionally and financially, and are not accurately tracked. Not every medical complication is preventable, but many are. Not all medical errrors cause harm, but too many do.

Examples of medical errors are operating on the wrong side of the body, puncturing  a nearby organ while doing surgery, administering an overdose of medication, not assessing for or treating dangerous drug side effects, blood clots that may have been prevented with medication or activity after surgery, developing a bedsore from not being turned often enough in bed, and many others. Some are errors of omission like not monitoring a patient's vital signs or being dismissive of warning signs or patient-family concerns. A great majority of errors are caused by failures in communication.

To quote The Institute for Healthcare Improvement in their recently published National Action Plan to Advance Patient Safety :  

'Preventable harm is one of the most common causes of death in the United States and is associated with additional adverse consequences, disability, lost productivity, and unnecessary expenses. While the estimates of preventable harm vary, we can all agree on this: Behind each number are people and a story. The people begin with the patient and family and extend to loved ones, the health professionals involved in their care, and society at large.'


When somene gets hurt in an auto accident, at work, or at a public place of business, they have insurance options like automobile liability coverage, business, homeowner or worker's compensation to get the financial or medical help they may need to recover while they are out of work.  This is not the case when patients are harmed during the course of medical treatment.  We simply don't have a system that protects patients from this too-common type of financial devastation. There is no 'medical accident' or 'patient harm' insurance coverage. 

This is one of the reasons medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy in America.  Just one hospital acquired infection can cost between $13,000 to $48,000  in extended treatment.  You can imagine how costly an extended hospital or ICU stay can be from a medical accident like puncturing an organ or very serious infections leading to sepsis. Weeks, if not months of recovery, using up employee benefits like sick and/or vacation time, short or long term disablity, health insurance deductibles, copayments and out of pocket maximums. Some people lose their job and health insurance and then have to apply for federal assistance programs like Medicaid or Social Security Disabilty benefits. The harm quickly adds up; physical, emotional, and financial.  That's why prevention is key.

More and more, high quality healthcare needs to be a partnership between a doctor or medical caregiver and their patient.  Let your doctor/medical caregiver know you want to be involved and that you want to make shared decisions together.  Let them know that when you ask a question or speak up, it’s not that you don’t trust them or their judgement.  Instead, you want to build a trusting relationship with them because your health and a good health outcome are important to you. And it's not only ok to communicate that you want to reduce your risk of unnecessary complications or's imperative that you discuss this important safety issue.


1. Prepare ahead by making a commitment to being assertive and engaged in your care.  

How To Prepare for a Doctor's Appointment
Great list of steps & questions to consider. From the National Institute on Aging.

The Take Charge Campaign
These are 5 easy steps to being a more prepared patient. From The Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education & Advocacy.

2. Keep a journal. Write down your questions and any answers you receive. Better yet, bring a trusted advocate with you to be your journal-keeper.

3. Be a sleuth. Do your research and look at a variety of reputable resources and websites before you choose a hospital, medical provider, or when deciding your treatment options.  Ask questions. Ask neighbors & friends about their experiences. Ask your doctor/surgeon if you can speak with one of her/his patients about their experience. This step is why we've included many resources on this website; to help you find information that helps with making informed healthcare decision(s). 

4. Have an advocate with you. You can choose a trusted friend, family member, or a professional.  They can be an extra set of eyes & ears, help frame questions, be a note-taker, help you summarize and digest information after a doctor visit, help weigh your options, and provide emotional support.  During the current Pandemic, when bedside advocates may not always be possible, video technology and phones still allow for daily communication. 

Our Advocacy Page has listings of professional advocates.

5. Always speak with your insurance company ahead of time about your options, whether you need pre-authorization, what will be covered, what you will be responsible for, what is considered 'in-network'  or 'out of network' and what you can do to avoid any surprise medical or ambulance bills. You can learn more on our Healthcare Costs Page.



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Medical Error Reporting 

Many states, including New Hampshire, have laws that require hospitals to report the most serious medical errors, called 'adverse events or serious reportable events' to the state Department of Health, Department of Facility Licensing.  But we don't have a state or federal tracking system for patients to report medical errors.

Note: NE Patient Voices researched and wrote the proposal for New Hampshire's Adverse Event Reporting Law in 2009.  We worked with state legislators to draft the legislation. and coordinated several patients to provide moving testimony. The bill was passed into law in January, 2010.  Since then hospitals and now ambulatory surgical centers are required to report these serious errors to the state, which produces an annual public report (see 2019 report below).

Although we do not have a state or federal tracking system for patients to report medical errors, the US government does track patient reports for medication and medical device safety events (see the 'MedWatch link below)

For information on filing a complaint about a medical error or healthcare experience you've had, go to our Filing Complaints Page.



2019 New Hampshire Adverse Event Report
Includes hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers

FDA Medwatch Safety Reporting System
You can report problems or harm caused by medications and medical devices.

Medical Event Reporting Survey for Patients
From The Empowered Patient Coalition, a non profit organization that has developed a survey for patients to report medical errors or serious medical harm. You can read the report of the survey results here.

The Voices of Patient Harm Survey & Report
From Pro-Publica, an investigative journalism site. Pro-Publica does extensive reporting on healthcare related issues.

The Betsy Lehman Center Peer Support Program
A support program for patients who have suffered medical harm..

Campaign Zero Print & Save Hospital Checklists
Patient-focused hospital safety checklists to save and print. Prevention checklists for infections, sepsis, blood clots, falls, medication mistakes and others.

20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors: A Patient Fact Sheet
From The Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ)

What You Can Do To Stay Safe
From The Leapfrog Group, a leading patient safety hospital rating organization.

What You Need To Know About Rapid Response Teams
From The Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center













 News & Tips

ECRI Releases Top 10 Patient Safety Concerns for 2020. What's Number 1?
Fierce Healthcare, by Joanne Finnegan, March 11, 2020

Partnering With Families and Advocates,
Another Line of Defense in Adverse Event Surveillance
Institute for Safe Medication Practices, August, 2020

Choosing The Right Hospital
From the Leapfrog Group

What You Need To Know About Rapid Response Teams
From The Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center

Categorizing and Measuring Harm From Medical Treatments
Commentary by Judith Garber, for the Lown Institute, February 1, 2021


Kicking the Hornet's Nest Movie Trailer
A movie coming out soon about a medical device called a morcellator, used on many women to remove uterine fibroids. Riveting testimony from patients, families & the medical community about how the device caused undiagnosed cancer to spread, tragically shortening the lives of many women. 

Never Events
This is the trailer to an awared-winning documentary about the degree of patient harm caused by medical errors or 'never events', dangerous surgeons or doctors, and what the system is doing to try to reduce this harm. Coming soon...

Bleed Out 
A filmaker & comedian documents his mother's healthcare journey when she suffers brain damage after a routine operation. His mother's medical harm story turns into a citizen's indictment of the U.S. healthcare system. 

The Bleeding Edge
This Time Magazine article does an in-depth story about the movie & provides a link to the Netflix viewing platform.  The film addresses the dangers and patient harm from common medical devices and the Food & Drug Administration's (FDA) process for reviewing and approving the safety of these, and other devices.

To Err is Human
Produced by the son of a doctor and patient safety pioneer, Dr. John Eisenberg, this movie calls attention to the silent epidemic of medical harm and the people working inside the system to improve patient safety.





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