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What Is Medical Harm?

By Jennifer Leigh
Updated Feb 09, 2024
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Medical harm occurs when a patient is physically or psychologically damaged by his or her medical treatment. This can happen at any facility where an individual is being treated for a medical condition. Physicians, nurses and hospitals in many countries typically follow an ethical code that includes nonmaleficence, which means doing no harm to patients who are under their care. When medical harm occurs, legal consequences often follow.

Common causes of medical harm include infections, adverse reactions to medications and negligence. Not all instances of medical harm are preventable, though some of them are, which causes many problems in healthcare systems. Poor patient care includes problems with providing intravenous fluids and negative occurrences after surgery. Medications can be dangerous when given in incorrect dosages or in combination with other drugs that cause negative side effects.

Psychological damage from medical harm can occur because of a physical problem or mistreatment while receiving care. If a patient becomes seriously ill or has some sort of complication during his or her medical treatment, he or she might suffer psychological consequences such as depression or anxiety. People who have lost loved ones because of medical harm might experience psychological consequences such as anger and grief. Support groups are available in many places for people who are suffering from these psychological effects.

Legal consequences often result from medical harm. If a doctor or nurse causes preventable harm to a patient, he or she might have to pay fines or lose the ability to practice medicine. Hospitals and other facilities can lose the right to accept and treat patients. Laws differ on the consequences of these actions from one jurisdiction to the next, so the legal implications can vary considerably, as can the definition of medical harm.

Hospitals and facilities can help prevent harm by keeping a good organizational system in place and taking measures to ensure that all protocols are followed. Having too few doctors and nurses on duty contributes to the problem, as does overcrowding in a facility. Regulations on doctors, hospital workers and facilities are in place in some parts of the world but are not the same everywhere, and many places do not have regulations in place at all.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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