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Communication errors: A leading cause of malpractice complaints

When you went to the outpatient surgical center to get ready for your surgery, you were surprised by how lighthearted people were acting. There were individuals joking around in the lobby and staff members having personal conversations. You didn't mind, so long as you were taken care of.

While checking in, a nurse walked you through everything that would be happening that day. She started off calling you by the wrong name, so you corrected her. She continued to do so anyway. Then, she started explaining where the surgery would take place, and it seemed like it was on the wrong side of your body. You spoke up, and she said she'd confirm with the surgeon.

By the time it was your turn to be wheeled back, your surgeon was running a little late. He asked if you had any questions, but you had already been given medication to relax and forgot to point out the nurse's errors.

You weren't surprised when you woke up with stitches on both sides. They had operated incorrectly, and you had to be under longer than expected to correct the mistake. That breakdown in communication made you furious, and it means that you now have longer to recover and will have to miss work for weeks longer than expected.

Communication has to be perfect when patients' lives are at risk

Medical mistakes don't have to happen, but when communication is poor, they're much more likely. Did you know that around a third of all medical malpractice complaints are a result of communication failures?

Between 2009 and 2013, a study of 23,658 malpractice cases found that 30% cited at least some form of miscommunication. That miscommunication was between the provider and the patient or between providers, leading to trouble with the treatment or interaction with the patient.

Some common communication problems include:

  • Failing to read a patient's medical record
  • Failing to obtain informed consent
  • Not obtaining an adequate informed consent
  • Being unsympathetic to a patient's complaint
  • Incomplete follow-up instructions
  • Failing to provide results (or giving the wrong results to the patient)

In those cases, 12% of patients suffered minor injuries, 44% had moderate injuries and 44% suffered severe injuries (including death) because of those communication errors.

Communication between providers and patients matters. With good communication, the likelihood of errors can be decreased. If you are injured due to mistakes and a lack of communication, you may be able to hold those providers responsible.

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