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How to Protect Yourself Against Medical Errors

How to Protect Yourself Against Medical Errors

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 03/10/2020
Last Updated: 03/10/2020

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When someone dies, the cause is documented on their death certificate. Not so if the death was caused by a medical error.

Medical errors are the third cause of death in the United States according to the British Medical Journal. It defines medical errors as an unintended act or one that doesn't work as intended; an error of planning or execution; or a deviation from the process of care.

Among the top medical errors? Misdiagnosis, medication mistakes, infections transmitted from the hospital or early discharges.

It can be increasingly challenging to stay on top of our health, especially as we age and medical issues and medical appointments increase. While it's true that we don't always have control over all the logistics of our health care, there are things we can all learn to stay safe and prevent these errors from occurring. One of the most important things you can do is be to speak up if you have any questions or concerns.

  1. Be an active participant on your team. Many medical decisions require input and decisions. Be involved directly in every decision and discussion relating to your care. Involved patients tend to get better results, research shows.

  2. Know—and share—your information, including your full medical history.

  3. Keep an updated list of the medicines you take—prescription, over-the-counter medicines, and vitamins, supplements and herbs—and share it with all your health care professionals. If you don't have a list, bring the bottles with you to any medical visits, including those with your primary care provider, as well as specialists, walk-in clinics and hospitals. Read 5 Questions to Ask Before a Medication Checkup.

  4. Similarly, make medical personnel aware of any allergies you have, especially adverse reactions to medicines. This can help prevent dangerous or deadly drug interactions.

  5. Many health care professionals have illegible handwriting. If they hand you a prescription, make sure you can read it to prevent a possible error in receiving the incorrect medicine. Many prescriptions are now submitted electronically to the pharmacist, which may reduce such handwriting errors.

  6. Pharmacies also can make errors. Case in point: A recent article in the New York Times reported that Walgreens' pharmacy employees told consultants of mistakes they made due to high stress levels and "unreasonable expectations." As a result, some safety procedures were ignored.

  7. When getting a prescription filled, double-check the label to make sure all information is correct. Don't hesitate to ask questions about side effects (best to get it in writing, which is usually provided in the literature that accompanies the prescription). Ask if there is a best time to take the medicine (Morning or evening? Full stomach or empty stomach?) and if there are any interactions with foods or other medicines (including over-the-counter drugs, supplements or herbs).

  8. Make sure you're clear on how and when to take your medicine. For example, does "four times daily" mean taking it every six hours, around the clock, or just during regular waking hours?

  9. Request a list of ingredients in the medicine and check for any possible allergies. Ask if there are any foods, drinks or activities you should avoid while taking the medication.

  10. If your medication is in liquid form, ask the pharmacist for the best way to measure it. Important to know: a tablespoon dose is not the same as a household tablespoon measurement. Read more: Know the Dose for Your Kids' Medicines.

To Prevent Hospital Errors

  1. If possible, choose the hospital that does the most procedures or type of surgery you're having. The old saying "practice makes perfect" applies here. According to research, there are better results when patients are treated in hospitals that have a lot of experience in their condition.

  2. Ensure that all personnel who have direct contact with you wash their hands, which is imperative to help prevent the spread of infection. Hospital personnel typically put on gloves when entering a room, but make sure your visitors also wash hands and/or put on sterile gloves.

  3. Prior to surgery, make sure that you, your doctor and your surgeon are all on the same page as to what exactly will be done. (Some surgical groups, like the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, encourage their surgeons to sign their initials directly on the site to be operated on prior to surgery to prevent wrong-side surgery.)

  4. In the hospital, ask for a written summation of the medications and doses you need, and keep track of it each time you are given drugs.

  5. When you're discharged from the hospital, make sure you have clear instructions on what to do once you return home. Understand your medications, learn about the necessary and expected recuperation time and when you can resume your regular activities. Your doctor may assume you know more than you actually do.

  6. Ask a friend or family member to be your advocate. It's always wise to have another set of eyes and ears, especially when you are overwhelmed with information or groggy from the after-effects of anesthesia.

Test and Procedure Safety

  1. Don't assume that you need a test, procedure or treatment, just because your health care provider prescribes it. You have a right to seek a second opinion, as well as question your provider to see if it is really necessary.

  2. Ask if the recommended treatment is based on the latest evidence. Ask about new studies or trials.

  3. If you do have a test, always follow up. No news is not necessarily good news.

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