15 Ways Patients Can Help Prevent Medical Errors

By:  Erik Heninger

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) seminal study of preventable medical errors estimates that as many as 98,000 people die every year at a cost of $29 billion due to medical errors by medical professionals. If categorized by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), medical errors would be the sixth leading cause of death in America. To further enforce the prevailing risk of medical errors causing death, a person’s risk of dying in a plane crash is 1:10,000,000. However, chances of dying in a hospital due to medical error is 1:300. Medical errors can occur anywhere in the health care system: In hospitals, clinics, surgery centers, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, pharmacies, and patients’ homes. Errors can involve medicines, surgery, diagnosis, equipment, or lab reports. They can happen during even the most routine tasks, such as when a hospital patient on a salt-free diet is given a high-salt meal.

Most errors result from problems created by today’s complex health care system. But errors also happen when doctorsand patients have problems communicating. The following tips are some simple suggestions to suggest what you can do to get safer care.

What You Can Do to Stay Safe

The best way you can help to prevent errors is to be an active member of your health care team. That means taking part in every decision about your health care. Research shows that patients who are more involved with their care tend to get better results.

Medicines

1. Make sure that all of your doctors know about every medicine you are taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, such as vitamins and herbs.

2. Bring all of your medicines and supplements to your doctor visits. “Brown bagging” your medicines can help you and your doctor talk about them and find out if there are any problems. It can also help your doctor keep your records up to date and help you get better quality care.

3. Make sure your doctor knows about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medicines. This can help you to avoid getting a medicine that could harm you.

4. Ask for information about your medicines in terms you can understand—both when your medicines are prescribed and when you get them:
What is the medicine for?
How am I supposed to take it and for how long?
What side effects are likely? What do I do if they occur?
Is this medicine safe to take with other medicines or dietary supplements I am taking?
What food, drink, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?

Hospital Stays

5. If you are in a hospital, consider asking all health care workers who will touch you whether they have washed their hands. Handwashing can prevent the spread of infections in hospitals.

6. When you are being discharged from the hospital, ask your doctor to explain the treatment plan you will follow at home. This includes learning about your new medicines, making sure you know when to schedule follow-up appointments, and finding out when you can get back to your regular activities.
It is important to know whether or not you should keep taking the medicines you were taking before your hospital stay. Getting clear instructions may help prevent an unexpected return trip to the hospital.

Surgery

7. If you are having surgery, make sure that you, your doctor, and your surgeon all agree on exactly what will be done.

8. If you have a choice, choose a hospital where many patients have had the procedure or surgery you need. Research shows that patients tend to have better results when they are treated in hospitals that have a great deal of experience with their condition.

Other Steps

9. Speak up if you have questions or concerns. You have a right to question anyone who is involved with your care.

10. Make sure that someone, such as your primary care doctor, coordinates your care. This is especially important if you have many health problems or are in the hospital.

11. Make sure that all your doctors have your important health information. Do not assume that everyone has all the information they need.

12. Ask a family member or friend to go to appointments with you. Even if you do not need help now, you might need it later.

13. Know that “more” is not always better. It is a good idea to find out why a test or treatment is needed and how it can help you. You could be better off without it.

14. If you have a test, do not assume that no news is good news. Ask how and when you will get the results.

15. Learn about your condition and treatments by asking your doctor and nurse and by using other reliable sources. For example, treatment options based on the latest scientific evidence are available from the Effective Health Care Web site (http://www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/options). Ask your doctor if your treatment is based on the latest evidence.


[1] Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; September 2011.

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