No one wants to become the victim of a medical error. These mistakes often prove serious or even fatal. Unfortunately, they’re more common than you might think. In fact, according to a study at Johns Hopkins, medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the United States – ranking higher than diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes.

Why does medical negligence keep happening? While multiple factors contribute, the biggest culprits include lack of communication and improper staffing.

Communication lapses

When you need medical attention for a serious or complex condition, you might end up seeing a wide range of providers, from your primary care doctor to specialists in multiple fields. Pursuing the right treatment may require visiting several facilities across different care systems. As a result, many providers will need to stay informed when it comes to the various aspects of your case, which means having access to all relevant records.

Even with electronic medical records, though, mistakes happen. Files don’t get fully transmitted. Test results don’t get uploaded. Critical details go missing. Even seemingly minor gaps in your record can have major ramifications.

Dangerous communication lapses frequently happen in fast-paced settings like operating rooms and intensive care units. Miscommunications between doctors, nurses and other members of your care team could lead to life-threatening consequences.

Inadequate staffing

When hospitals and clinics are understaffed, the risk of errors skyrockets. Overworked nurses and doctors are far more likely to make mistakes. They might overlook a critical drug interaction. They might administer the wrong medication or the wrong dose. They could even mix up your file with that of another patient. These worst-case scenarios illustrate the importance of choosing a facility with care – especially for high-risk procedures like surgery.

Protecting yourself

As the shocking prevalence of medical errors continues to come to light, patients themselves are becoming more aware of the risks. You are in the best position to be your own advocate. Take an active interest in your health, and never hesitate to seek a second opinion. Err on the side of clarification over confusion, and speak up if something doesn’t seem right.