Medical Errors and Mismonitoring By the Numbers: How Serious Is the Problem? August 11, 2016.

Medical errors may be the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to a recent study by a patient safety team at Johns Hopkins. A significant number of these deaths result from the failure to monitor patients’ health, the failure to correctly interpret monitoring data, or the failure to act on a problem promptly.

The Johns Hopkins study examined four large-scale studies that tracked medical death rates from 2000 to 2008. Using hospital admission rates from 2013, the team extrapolated that over 251,000 deaths in that year likely resulted from medical error – making medical error the cause of 9.5 percent of all U.S. deaths each year.

The researchers noted that most medical errors are the result of "systemic problems," like poor coordination of care and the lack of safety protocols. Mismonitoring problems can easily result from either of these causes, as well as from other causes, such as malfunctioning equipment or lack of communication among the patient care team, as well as carelessness or negligence.

Here are some of the most common mismonitoring errors and their consequences:

  • Anesthesia Monitoring. Misplacement of equipment, lack of communication, or failure to pay proper attention when a patient is under anesthesia can all cause serious injury or death. Currently, about 1 in 200,000 patients die while under anesthesia. Others suffer severe brain injuries and other permanent harm.
  • Fetal Heart Monitoring. Monitoring a baby’s heart rate during labor and delivery is one of the simplest ways to determine whether the baby is in distress, so that measures can be taken before permanent harm results. Although electronic fetal heart monitoring was first developed in the 1960s, delivery teams may forget to check it regularly – with serious results.
  • Operating Room Equipment Counts. Leaving a sponge, needle, or surgical instrument inside a patient has been the subject of countless sitcom jokes, but the consequences can be serious – and the error is more common than most people realize. Shockingly, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that this mistake happens in as many as 1 in every 8 surgeries.

Each of these errors can be reduced or avoided with more careful monitoring and attention – and each can cause serious harm if this care is not taken.