When is a Medical Error Considered a Crime?


Although there have been many advances in health care, there are still many issues that surround adverse events. The rates of medical errors are increasing even though multiple strides have been made in order to facilitate quality care. With all of the implications that have surrounded the field, when is a medical error actually considered a crime?

From all of my professional experiences within hospitals in New York, it seems that an organization’s “reason for being” is to provide the best possible health care when needed. Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that problems arise when the hospital’s mission is “to generate a profit”, to “advance science”, or any other mission that might be at odds with providing the best possible care in the short term. The same applies to individual clinicians and clinical teams within the hospital.

Then, I thought about a common patient safety movement commandment “errors represent system problems.” In a sense, it also represents the fact that “thou shall not blame.”  Like most complicated issues in life, the truth lies somewhere between these polar views. Overall, the “no blame” view is right – most errors are committed by good, hardworking doctors and nurses, and finger-pointing simply distracts us from the systems fixes that can prevent the next fallible human being from killing someone.

Yet, taken to extremes, the “no blame argument” has always struck me slightly naïve. Let’s look at a case from just this year in April. A 24 year old received a routine wisdom teeth removal and woke up coughing during the procedure. He was given the powerful anesthetic propofol, but his condition quickly deteriorated and he was transferred to a hospital, where he died three days later. According to the patient care report, the paramedics said that the patient woke up during the procedure, started coughing and was given propofol. When the patient stopped breathing, CPR was started and the paramedics were called.

After they arrived, the paramedics found two pieces of surgical gauze in the patient’s airway as they tried to intubate him. How can such a careless mistake lead to the death of an innocent man?

What’s most shocking is the healthy 24-year-old goes in for an operation as routine as having his wisdom teeth removed and dies in the process. So the question remains- when is a medical error a crime?

According to dozens of enterprises for risk management, there are three kinds of behaviors that can lead to errors:

Human error – inadvertently facilitating a process other than what should have been done; a slip, lapse, or mistake.

At-risk behavior – a behavior or process that may increase risk or recognition that the behavior is mistakenly justified.

Reckless behavior – a choice that is made to disregard unjustifiable risk in a conscious manner.

Were the surgeons involved with the case criminally prosecuted? I doubt it. There was legitimate remorse and regret towards the family. However, I will go so far as to say that there should have been counseling, suspension or arguably firing done. The case is still open- just like so many other medical error cases and unfortunately, my main question still stands. What are your thoughts?


About the Author:

Anita Pic
             Anita Haridat, Ph.D

Anita Haridat has her Ph.D in healthcare/business administration and her master’s degree in clinical nutrition. She has several publications in sources such as EGO Magazine, Natural Awakenings Magazine, Syosset Patch, Our USA Magazine and many more. Her passion for health and wellness has created multiple stepping stones for paving the way of creating a positive well being. Her first book can be found here:

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