Iatrogenic Events During Medical Treatments

When something meant to help causes a new illness or injury

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

When medical or surgical treatment causes a new illness or injury, the result is considered to be iatrogenic. If you or your child are going for medical care, one of your worst fears may be that something could go wrong as a result of the treatment. An iatrogenic event can either complicate your existing medical condition or cause health issues unrelated to the illness you sought treatment for in the first place.

These types of situations are rarely intentional, though medical providers are human and mistakes can be made. While you can't eliminate the risk of an iatrogenic event, there are things you can do to reduce your risk.

Why They Can Occur

"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."

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, and there is no single cause, medical condition, or circumstance linked to these occurrences. Iatrogenic events may lead to physical, mental, or emotional problems or, in some cases, even death.

A few examples of iatrogenic events include:

  • If you were to become infected because a doctor or nurse didn't wash his or her hands after touching a previous patient, this would be considered an iatrogenic infection.
  • If you had surgery and the wrong kidney was removed, or the wrong knee was replaced, this would be considered an iatrogenic injury.
  • If you are given a prescription for medications that are well known to interact with each other, but you are not informed of the risk, an adverse outcome would be considered an iatrogenic effect.
  • If a psychological therapy results in a worsened mental state, that outcome would be considered an iatrogenic illness.

Differing Perspectives

If a new illness or injury is caused by medical care provided by a doctor or other healthcare worker, it is classified as iatrogenic. While it may seem straightforward, patients, healthcare providers, hospitals, and lawyers may not look at these events in the same way.

As a patient or a parent of a patient, you would be concerned with knowing whether you would not have gotten sick or hurt had you not interfaced with the healthcare system. Your priorities are to know how your short-term and long-term outcomes.

Your doctors, nurses, and therapists are focused on taking precautions to avoid a medical error, which would be considered an iatrogenic event. These mistakes are never intended, of course, but they are no less harmful to the patient. At the same time, some recommended treatments are known to have the potential for adverse effects, and your healthcare team would weigh the pros and cons of these treatments with you, and alert you to the risks.

Hospitals are concerned with preventing iatrogenic events, but they tend to look at the bigger picture, identifying trends and areas to work on for system-wide improvement.

And the legal and government systems are generally more concerned with accurately defining what constitutes an iatrogenic event.

How Often They Occur

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "on any given day, about one in 25 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection." But overall numbers of all types of iatrogenic events are difficult to nail down.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The statistics that are reported tend to focus on deaths rather than all adverse effects, largely because death is easier to define.
  • Some studies are done to collect data on very specific outcomes, such as iatrogenic injury to the spleen. While the numerous studies make it difficult to calculate the total numbers of iatrogenic events, they are helpful in creating preventative methods because they are so targeted.
  • It can be difficult to determine whether an event was iatrogenic. If someone experienced vomiting and dehydration as a result of antibiotic medication that cleared up an infection, this may or may not be considered iatrogenic.
  • Many events go unreported, either due to lack of recognition, fear on the part of the healthcare provider, or an unclear reporting system.

What You Can Do

 As a patient or a parent, there are a few steps you can take to prevent iatrogenic events from happening to you or your loved ones:

  • Try to understand your treatments and ask as many questions as you need to ease your mind.
  • After any procedures, remain aware of any potential adverse effects and contact a doctor immediately if you notice anything concerning. 
  • Try to bring a family member or trusted friend to your medical appointments. While you should provide your own medical history and list of medications and allergies, you may forget some details when you are sick. This extra set of eyes and ears can provide valuable information for your care.
  • Communicate clearly and respectfully with your healthcare team. Studies show that those who do tend to get better care.

A Word From Verywell

Reducing iatrogenic events is an important goal for any healthcare system or government because it prevents illness, pain, discomfort, and even death. When policies and funding are directed towards a collaborative and productive healthcare environment to prevent medical errors, there can be very good outcomes.

For example, Partnership for Patients (PfP) was established as a national initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reduce preventable hospital-acquired conditions in the Military Health System (MHS). The program is still ongoing, and early initiatives reduced hospital-acquired conditions by 15.8 percent and reduced readmissions by 11.1 percent, which demonstrates that well-organized processes can reduce iatrogenic events.

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