Johns Hopkins University lists hospital medical errors as the third-leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for more than 250,000 deaths annually. It amounts to people dying from seeking care rather than the disease for which they need treatment.
While the death toll from the pandemic has risen well above 600,000, temporarily pushing medical mistakes to the No. 4 cause of death, the virus has further exacerbated staffing shortages that can lead to unnecessary patient harm.
Nurses union warns of a national ‘crisis’
The American Nurses Association asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare the continuing nursing shortage a national crisis, citing burned-out staff and overwhelmed health care systems.
But shortages of nurses and other medical staff were common before the pandemic, especially at for-profit facilities that put their own economic bottom lines ahead of patient safety. Shortages of people and experience can result in disaster for those who desperately need care.
How does understaffing result in medical errors?
Staffing shortages not only mean hospitals don’t have enough people to handle patient loads, but many of those on staff do not have the expertise to perform adequate care. Medical errors result from these common causes:
- Safety failures: Medical personnel find workarounds or ignore safety protocols resulting in shortcuts to get the job done.
- Cognitive issues: Overwhelmed staff members often have trouble concentrating, leading to errors or omissions that harm patients.
- Close calls: With little oversight and overworked staff members, medication errors may not be caught in time. Even physical hazards, such as wet floors, can lead to injuries for patients and staffers.
Staffing shortages and the pressures associated with overworked medical personnel continue to lead to many avoidable consequences for patients, including medication and anesthesia errors, inadequate monitoring after procedures, failure to take proper precautions and technical medical mistakes.