Our system of medical care isn’t perfect. Yet that’s no excuse for the untold medical errors that harm innocent patients every year. In fact, according to researchers at John Hopkins, medical malpractice is surpassed only by heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death among Americans.

It’s clear that preventable medical mistakes occur with shocking regularity. What’s less clear, however, is what exactly contributes to these errors. One would think that life-saving advances in modern medicine would lead to a lower incidence of mistakes. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Medical mistakes often result from a complex mix of human, technological and institutional failures, which can be difficult to pinpoint. Researchers have nonetheless identified some common threads that run through many medical errors. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, these include:

  • Lapses in communication: Miscommunication can happen as a result of institutional problems, individual negligence or both. Given the complexities of the medical field, many health conditions require coordinating care between multiple providers – doctors, specialists, surgeons, nurses, pharmacists, clinics, hospitals and outpatient treatment centers, to name a few. Sometimes, critical information gets lost in the shuffle. Inadequate documentation, mistaken labeling, poor record-keeping and even messy handwriting can lead to major errors.
  • Lack of proper training and protocols: Hospitals, clinics and other health care institutions have a vital role to play in preventing medical errors. One way to do that is by implementing the right protocols – for example, requiring health care providers to verify the identity of each patient. These protocols can make a life-or-death difference. Likewise, ensuring that all staff and providers are up-to-date on their training and credentials is a simple yet effective way to protect patient safety. When health care facilities fail in these critical areas, the incidence of medical mistakes skyrockets.
  • Inadequate staffing: A proper staff-to-patient ratio is essential for providing quality care. Unfortunately, far too many facilities are overcrowded and understaffed. Unreasonable patient loads are especially prevalent in hospitals, emergency rooms, nursing homes and skilled care facilities – all of which serve high-risk patients whose health is already fragile. In these settings, it’s all too easy for details to get overlooked, and for patients to be deprived of the care and attention they deserve.
  • Technical failures: Medical technology is life-saving, but when it fails, it can be life-taking. Problems with medical devices, monitoring equipment, surgical tools and electronic health records (among countless other technologies) can have drastic consequences. In some cases, the product manufacturers may be responsible for dangerous or defective equipment. Other times, though, the failures are due to improper maintenance or user error.

As you can see, many factors pave the way for inexcusable errors. Individuals and institutions at all levels of the health care system have a weighty responsibility to keep patients safe.