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Medical Malpractice

Emergency Room Error Statistics Every Patient Should Know

September 30, 2022

The rate of emergency room error statistics in the United States is high. Medical records indicate approximately 250,000 patient deaths each year from medical errors, and a significant number of those occur in the ER. The rate of patient illnesses and injuries that never get reported is suspected to be even higher.

Emergency Room Error Statistics

In 2016, the British Medical Journal, a peer-reviewed medical trade journal, reported that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Statistics show there are more than 250,000 yearly deaths because of medical errors made in medical facilities around the country. Many of these deaths happen before patients ever make it past the emergency room.

It’s estimated that emergency room errors in the U.S. occur in at least 5% to 10% of all emergency room visits. With patients making more than 140 million trips to hospital emergency rooms each year, that adds up to more than 10 million emergency room errors.

Research shows that emergency room errors are shockingly common. While medical errors and cases of medical malpractice occur in all areas of the health profession, they are especially concerning in emergency rooms, where even the smallest error can lead to a crippling injury or death for a patient.

Although there are many causes for emergency room errors, the British Medical Journal’s research on admitted patients indicates that a large percentage of errors are caused by the ways doctors process patient data. Doctors may have the correct patient data, but process it in the wrong way.

In 45% of patient cases involving errors, the most frequent type of error occurred from problems with processing patient information. Errors included problems verifying patient information (31%), gathering inadequate patient information (18%), and problems with inadequate patient knowledge (6%). Errors that occurred most frequently were caused by doctors misjudging the significance of a medical finding and prematurely giving a wrong patient diagnosis. This occurred in 18% of cases.

A hospital emergency room is a very different environment compared to private medical visits and in-patient hospital wards. Dealing with a chaotic environment, severe patient illnesses and injuries, frequent interruptions, and incomplete patient information significantly increase emergency room error statistics.

Researchers looked at patients who came back to emergency rooms for a second visit within 72 hours and found that medical care and treatments could have been improved during the first visit. The study also found that patients who came in with abdominal complaints were particularly vulnerable to emergency room errors.

Most Common Medical Errors Made in the ER

Emergency room errors are caused by a variety of circumstances, but each one can have serious health consequences for a patient. It’s important for every patient to know about emergency room error statistics and what you can do to prevent them.

Emergency room doctors are trained medical professionals, but they work under high-stress conditions. There are common emergency room errors putting patients’ lives at risk. The most commons ones include:


Misdiagnosis of a medical condition is by far the most common type of emergency room error. When things are moving at a fast pace emergency room errors can happen. Doctors may not order all of the necessary tests for an accurate diagnosis, or may not properly analyze the findings. A misdiagnosis and lack of proper treatment can be potentially life-threatening for patients with a heart attack, stroke, meningitis, abdominal bleeding, certain types of cancers, as well as numerous other conditions.

Delayed Treatments

Most hospital emergency rooms stay very busy with patients that need immediate attention. If you have been to an emergency room, you know that you can wait a long time just to see a doctor. Generally, most emergency rooms are good at judging the intensity of a patient’s pain and knowing when patients need to be seen right away, but sometimes there are oversights. This happens most often when the emergency room is extremely busy and there are more patients waiting to be seen than the emergency room staff can properly handle.

Medication Errors

Emergency room error statistics indicate a high rate of medication and prescription errors. Medication errors include giving out the wrong medications to patients as well as failing to provide any medications at all. When patients come in complaining of pain, it can be difficult to diagnose their conditions without a thorough examination. While a physical injury may be visible and easier to treat, an internal injury will require imaging (i.e. X-rays, MRI, or ultrasound) for a proper diagnosis and treatment. Medication errors, including the improper dosage of painkillers and other prescription medications, can be deadly.

Misreading Test Results

Patients who come to a hospital emergency room after an accident often have head trauma, internal injuries, and broken bones. These types of injuries cannot be properly diagnosed without image testing such as X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasounds. Without image testing, it’s impossible to give the patient an accurate diagnosis. If these image tests are misinterpreted by the reading physician and/or the attending doctor, the patient is at high-risk for further health complications caused by a misdiagnosis, improper medical treatments, and improper prescription medications. The patient may also be sent home unaware of serious injuries that require follow-up care or surgery.

Refusing to See a Patient

Fortunately, refusing to see a patient is not a significant factor seen in emergency room error statistics, but it does happen. While patients may have to wait a while to see a doctor, they are not usually turned away or sent home without some type of exam or treatment. When an emergency room staff or doctor refuses to see a patient, it’s likely caused by too many patients waiting for treatment, lack of treatment accommodations, or lack of health insurance coverage. During admittance, ER staff members usually ask patients for medical information and proof of health insurance. In cases involving trauma or severe injuries, it’s highly unlikely that a doctor will refuse to see a patient, even one without health insurance.

Improper Discharge

Improper discharge refers to the early release of patients before they are well enough to leave the supervision of the hospital. An improper discharge often goes hand-in-hand with a misdiagnosis and misread test results. Discharging a patient without a proper diagnosis and proper medical care puts the patient at risk for health complications, worsening injuries, and even death. When a patient receives an improper discharge, emergency room error statistics show they usually have to come back to the ER for another visit or see a doctor on an emergency basis.

What Is Emergency Room Malpractice?

Medical malpractice refers to any negligent actions on behalf of a hospital, medical facility, urgent care facility, doctor’s office, or hospital emergency room. Medical professionals including doctors, nurses, surgeons, dentists, EMTs, and other types of medical professionals take an oath to protect their patients from harm while under their care. While there are many different kinds of errors that can occur in medical facilities, medical malpractice refers to any mistake that occurred because of someone’s negligence.

While medical malpractice can occur in any type of medical facility, emergency room malpractice only occurs in the ER. Both medical malpractice and emergency room malpractice are caused by similar actions, but the laws that regulate malpractice are different. This is because most courts agree that quick actions are essential during medical emergencies.

All medical malpractice cases are unique to the patient’s circumstances and usually involve complicated issues. Emergency room malpractice cases are often much more complicated and harder to prove because of rotating ER doctors, changing staff, a large number of patients, and patients with outpatient status.

Unlike patients admitted to a hospital for care, emergency room patients are examined and sent home following some type of diagnosis by a doctor who is on-call in the ER. Unless the patient’s condition is diagnosed as urgent or life-threatening, the patient is usually sent home and advised to see his or her regular doctor for follow-up care. It’s then up to the patient to take further actions. This is especially dangerous if the patient is misdiagnosed, given wrong or unnecessary medications, or fails to seek medical help after being sent home.

The lack of proper follow-up care is a big factor in emergency room error statistics. There are numerous reports of heart attack victims going to hospital emergency rooms complaining of symptoms like nausea and vomiting, unusual fatigue, inability to sleep, clammy skin, cold sweats, shoulder or back pain, abdominal pain, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Unfortunately, all of these can be symptoms of a heart attack, especially in women. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths every year.

Filing a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

When a medical patient suffers harm due to the negligent actions of an emergency room doctor, the patient has the right to file a medical malpractice lawsuit to recover damages. To file a lawsuit for emergency room malpractice, you must prove four elements known as the four Ds of medical negligence:

Doctor-Patient Relationship

You must prove that the doctor and the patient had a direct relationship at the time of the injury. Usually, a doctor-patient relationship is established through personal contact that includes medical exams, treatments, and follow-up care. The patient’s medical records showing diagnosis, treatments, testing, medications, and prognosis, as well as the patient’s hospital admittance records, prove the doctor-patient relationship. Once this relationship exists, a doctor owes a lawful duty of care to that patient.

Duty of Care

You must prove that the standard duty of care provided fell below what would have been provided by another competent doctor in the same type of medical situation. Generally, the standard of care expected from emergency room doctors is unique and may grant them more leeway compared to other doctors. Why is this? Due to the stressful environment and large numbers of patients seen in the emergency room, ER doctors may have a lower standard of care compared to doctors in other areas of healthcare.

Breach of Duty of Care

Proving a breach of the standard duty of care is perhaps the most difficult factor to prove. To establish adequate proof for a successful lawsuit, doctors and medical experts are usually called on to provide expert testimony in court. A medical malpractice attorney will contact several emergency room doctors to testify on the patient’s behalf. The attorney will testify as an expert witness about what a competent doctor would do in that specific situation. If the actions of the doctor in question do not align with the expert testimony, the court will likely find that a breach of duty of care does exist.

Patient Harm Caused by the Breach of Duty

Proof must be established that the breach of duty by a doctor caused harm to the patient. Without proof of some type of harm which may be illness, injury, or death, the court will not award compensation for the patient’s physical and emotional damages. When a medical malpractice lawsuit is successful, compensation may be awarded for the following:

  • Medical expenses
  • Therapy and rehabilitation expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Temporary or permanent disabilities
  • Punitive damages

Chicago medical malpractice attorneys who have knowledge and trial experience with successful medical malpractice lawsuits can help you get fair compensation for your injuries.

The Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations is a deadline for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. In Illinois, you generally must file a lawsuit as a medical malpractice plaintiff within two years of the date on which you discovered the negligence or should have reasonably known of the negligence. If you discover your injury later on, then you have up to four years in which to file your lawsuit. After four years pass, the court will likely dismiss your medical malpractice claim and deny recourse for damage awards, despite emergency room error statistics.

For cases in which the medical malpractice plaintiff was a minor at the time of the incident, the deadline is extended to eight years from the date of the injury. However, the lawsuit may not be brought before the court after the plaintiff’s twenty-second birthday.

About The Author

Photo of Jeffrey  Goldberg
Attorney Jeffrey M. Goldberg has spent his entire professional career handling cases involving birth injury, medical malpractice, product liability and related accidents.