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Could Medical Errors Increase the Ebola Threat in the United States?

The risk of a widespread Ebola outbreak in the United States is still extremely low. However, as the country’s first case demonstrated, medical errors can increase the risk.

As we have previously reported on this San Diego Injury Blog, medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States. While mistakes can occur for any number of reasons, communication breakdowns are one of the most common causes.

In the case of Thomas Duncan, doctors who first treated him were not aware that he had recently traveled to West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak is largely uncontained. They diagnosed him with a mild infection, prescribed antibiotics, and sent him home.

According to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, an admitting nurse first collected information from Duncan, including his recent travel history. The nurse’s notes were then used to create an electronic health record (HER). While this important information should have been made available to the doctor who later treated Duncan, the hospital at first claimed that it was not, although it later changed its story. In any event, the doctor never inquired about Duncan’s travel history, which likely would have raised red flags about the risk of Ebola.

As a result, Duncan was not isolated and treated until three days later when he returned with more serious symptoms. The lapse is treatment increased the number of people with whom he had contact and may have worsened his chances for survival. He ultimately died from Ebola, and now nurses who treated him have also been infected.

As San Diego medical malpractice lawyers, we hope that hospitals will learn from what happened in Texas and take the appropriate steps to make sure that patients who may have Ebola are identified and treated quickly, with the proper safeguards in place. While Ebola should be easily contained in this country, our healthcare facilities must follow proper protocols to deter the spread of the disease.