Iatrogenic in Regards to Patients

Gram-positive Staphylococcus aureus Bacteria
Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Scientifica / Getty Images

As a patient, one of your worst fears may be that something goes wrong during your medical treatment. If an adverse effect — a new illness or injury — is caused by an oversight from a doctor or other healthcare worker, it is classified as "iatrogenic." 

Iatrogenic events are rarely intentional, though medical providers are human and mistakes can be made. This may result in complicating an existing medical condition or cause health issues unrelated to the illness you sought treatment for in the first place.

What Does Iatrogenic Mean?

"Iatrogenic" comes from the Greek language. "Iatros" means doctor or healer and "gennan" means "as a result." Therefore, the word literally means "as a result of a doctor."

When a patient acquires a new illness or is injured due to the services provided by a medical provider, the result is considered to be "iatrogenic." Iatrogenic events may result in diagnosis or treatment. They may lead to physical, mental, or emotional problems or, in some cases, even death.

The key to the definition is that a new medical problem has cropped up as a result of the actions of the medical provider. Essentially, it's saying that the patient would not have gotten sick or hurt had they not interfaced with that doctor or practitioner. 

An iatrogenic injury is a form of medical error. These mistakes are never intended, of course, but they are no less harmful to the patient.


Iatrogenic events can be caused by any number of medical oversights or mistakes. They may occur during a hospital stay or a routine doctor's visit; there is no single cause, medical condition, or circumstance linked to these occurrences.

To give you some idea of what may be defined as an adverse effect from medical treatments, here are a few examples.

  • Iatrogenesis can occur when a patient becomes infected because a doctor or nurse didn't wash their hands after touching a previous patient.
  • A surgical mistake, such as nicking the patient with a surgical instrument, removing the wrong kidney, or replacing the wrong knee would also be considered iatrogenic.
  • Drug conflicts that are documented, but unknown to the prescriber are iatrogenic.
  • If a psychological therapy results in further psychoses or neuroses for the patient, it would be considered iatrogenic.

How Frequent Are Iatrogenic Events?

It is difficult to nail down any concrete statistics of iatrogenesis and no two sources can agree. The statistics that are reported are not updated on a regular basis or tend to focus on deaths rather than all adverse effects.

To further complicate matters, hospitals have reporting systems in place to collect iatrogenic events. However, according to many sources in the industry, many events go unreported. The reasons for this is variable as well.

In a 2012 survey of hospital administrators by the Office of Inspector General (OIG from the Department of Health and Human Services), some 86 percent of events were not reported. In many cases, hospital staff did not see them as doing enough harm to the patient to warrant a report.

In an earlier study by the OIG, a 2010 report attempted to estimate adverse events experienced by Medicare beneficiaries. The findings state that in October 2008, approximately 13.5 percent of these patients "experienced adverse events during their hospital stays." Of those, reviewers found that 44 percent were "clearly or likely preventable."

These studies recommend that hospital administrators improve reporting procedures and that caregivers remain cognizant of their actions. Safety remains a top priority for hospitals and continuing action to improve these statistics are being implemented.

As a patient, try to understand your treatments and ask as many questions as you need to ease your mind. Also, after any procedures, remain aware of any potential adverse effects and contact a doctor immediately if you notice anything. 

View Article Sources
  • Office of Inspector General. "Hospital Incident Reporting Systems Do No Capture Most Patient Harm." 2012 https://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-06-09-00091.pdf
  • Office of Inspector General. "Adverse Events in Hospitals: National Incidence Among Medicare Beneficiaries." 2010. https://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-06-09-00090.pdf