Unraveling the Differences Between Malpractice and Medical Errors

Attorney Joseph Taraska

Navigating the labyrinth of healthcare is already complex, but where do patients and their families turn in the midst of unexpected outcomes? How does one determine if what happened was a known risk of the care provided or if it crossed the line into negligence? Attorney Joseph Taraska explains that grasping the nuances between these possibilities is absolutely crucial, albeit frequently obscured by the intricacies of medical jargon and law.

Medical errors are, by definition, unintentional. They stem from actions or omissions that are not premeditated yet are a known risk of the care and which occur even when the care provided was appropriate. While medical malpractice does not necessarily imply a deliberate intent to harm, it does denote a deviation from standard practices that implies some degree of negligence or carelessness.

The ability to differentiate between these two terms is crucial for healthcare providers, patients, and law practitioners, given the different ethical and legal repercussions carried by each term. 

Decoding Medical Error

A medical error, in the broadest sense, is an unintentional act (either of omission or commission) leading to an outcome that deviates from what was expected or desired. Medical errors can occur at any phase of a person’s healthcare journey. It might occur during the diagnosis, in the process of administering treatment, or even during the aftercare stage.

Medical errors can take multiple forms, ranging from simple miscommunications to procedural complications. For instance, a pharmacist might dispense medication at the wrong dosage due to a misunderstanding of the prescription – this is an error of communication.

Alternatively, a surgical team might encounter unforeseen complications during an operation, such as an unexpected reaction to anesthesia, which could be deemed a procedural error. These examples may or may not depending on the circumstances indicate negligence. Rather, they serve to highlight the overall complexity and inherent uncertainty of providing healthcare.

In 2016, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers estimated that over 250,000 deaths occur each year in the U.S. as a result of medical errors. While the consequences can be dire, not all medical errors are considered malpractice.

Unraveling the Concept of Medical Malpractice

In contrast, medical malpractice is a legal term that signifies more than a simple, inadvertent error. It denotes a negligent act or omission by a healthcare provider, one that strays from the widely accepted standard of practice in the medical community, culminating in harm or injury to the patient.

The scope of medical malpractice is vast, involving instances such as failure to diagnose a condition correctly, surgical errors, improper treatment, or even prematurely discharging a patient. However, it must involve a situation where negligence or deviation from the standard of care is evident. 

Attorney Joseph Taraska

The Implications of Medical Malpractice

Both medical error and malpractice have substantial impacts on the healthcare landscape, influencing provider-patient relationships, the reputation of medical professionals, and even healthcare costs. Understanding the distinctions between the two allows for better risk management and healthcare delivery improvement, ensuring that patients’ rights are upheld.

When examined from a legal lens, the ramifications of medical error and malpractice differ considerably. While medical errors are undoubtedly unfortunate, they typically do not provide grounds for legal recourse unless it can be proven that they resulted from negligence or a breach of duty.

In contrast, given its intrinsic link to negligence, medical malpractice often forms the foundation for legal proceedings and lawsuits. The burden of proof is on the patient, though, and they must show that they were harmed due to negligence outside of the standard code of conduct.


Distinguishing between medical error and malpractice is essential in promoting accountability, maintaining patient trust, managing insurance implications, and upholding the integrity of medical professionals. Because of the complexity of these events, if one suspects they have been injured as a result of negligent care they should consult an attorney experienced in medical malpractice cases.