When Do Medical Errors Become Malpractice?

Updated on April 27, 2020

Medical errors, which are defined as a preventable adverse effect of medical care, can turn into malpractice when healthcare providers act with negligence. While negligence can be difficult to prove, medical errors occur at an alarming rate.

John Hopkins University researchers estimate that medical errors contribute to over 250,000 deaths each year. However, because of inaccurate records or treatment providers unwilling to admit a mistake, we may never know the true cost.

Some victims of medical errors will choose to hire a medical malpractice lawyer. A lawyer can help prove a doctor’s mistake was negligent and caused injury, death, or another adverse outcome.

Medical Errors: To Err Is Human

Doctors are human, and humans make mistakes. A now famous report published in the Institute of Medicine in 1999 estimated that 98,000 people die from medical errors in hospitals in any given year. The report didn’t point fingers at doctors or treatment providers, but made a case for improved patient safety and a safer healthcare system overall.

Like the title of the report, to err is human, and mistakes can happen in bad healthcare systems. Doctors see multiple patients every day, perform under high-stress situations, and are often overworked or work long, grueling hours. 

If doctors are pushed to the limit, medical errors can lead to serious health consequences, which tend to occur in intensive care units, emergency departments, and operating rooms. 

The most common medical errors include:

  • mistakes involving drugs or medication
  • bloodstream infections
  • slip-and-fall injuries
  • surgical infections
  • blood clots
  • misdiagnoses
  • mistaken patient identities
  • over- or under-treating patients

While medical errors can lead to serious health complications, diagnostic errors, procedural errors, and other mistakes do not guarantee medical malpractice has occurred.

The Four Elements Of Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

Due to the prevalence of medical malpractice lawsuits, doctors fear malpractice, and some may face a lawsuit at some point in their careers. For a medical error to become malpractice, certain elements must occur.  

Medical malpractice lawsuits involve a medical provider’s failure to reasonably care for a patient, which is different from making a mistake. A malpractice lawsuit must include four elements: causation, duty of care, negligence, and whether the victim deserves compensation.


Causation tries to determine if the doctor’s act, or failure to act, resulted in a bad outcome. This is complicated and can be difficult to prove. 

If a patient dies from sepsis or infection, for example, the doctor may have made an error by not catching it in time. But, the patient’s sepsis could have been caused by an underlying health condition associated with a history of smoking, hypertension, or diabetes.

For malpractice to occur, there must be a direct cause between the doctor’s error and the specific injuries that could have been avoided. 

Duty Of Care To The Patient

This element can be easier to prove than causation. Duty of care refers to whether the doctor had a responsibility to reasonably care for a patient.

Malpractice may occur if the treatment provider fails to meet the medical industry’s standard of care. This violation of care means the doctor failed to meet their duty of keeping the patient safe. Proving duty of care is crucial for establishing negligence.  


Negligence occurs when a doctor fails to meet their duty of care towards the patient. Negligence could be an act or mistake, or could also be the omission or failure to act. To sue for malpractice, the plaintiff or patient must show that a doctor acting with reasonable care would not have made the same mistake, thus avoiding any injury or harm towards the patient. 


The final element is damages, or whether the patient suffered consequences and needs money or compensation to cover their loss or injury. The patient could receive a settlement to help cover monetary losses, like medical bills, or noneconomic losses like pain and suffering.

Although hundreds of thousands of people are likely affected by medical errors, proving medical malpractice is costly, time-consuming, and often requires the assistance of a qualified personal injury lawyer.

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