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The NSPA Blog

10 Ways to Prevent Medical Errors from Happening to You

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Posted on July 24th, 2017 by Teri Dreher, under Medical Error, Patient Advocacy, Take Charge, Tips & Resources

Leading Cause of Death      

You count on doctors and hospitals to protect your heath. But unthinkably, sometimes the opposite happens. Medical error is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Cancer and heart disease are still the leading culprits. But 250,000 Americans die each year as a result of preventable medical mistakes like post-surgical infections and medication mix ups. What can you do to make sure it doesn’t happen to you? 

10 Tips for Guarding Against Medical Errors

  1. Prepare a proactive medical summary of your health conditions, allergies, physicians and all medications. Show your family where it’s kept. In the event of an emergency or hospitalization, it can provide the medical staff with crucial information fast.
  2. Consult a trusted healthcare professional for recommendations when looking for a new doctor. Don’t rely on word of mouth, online reviews or advertisements. Your best path to a quality provider is another provider you know and trust. 
  3. Avoid hospitalizations if possible…really!  Especially if you’re elderly. Infections run rampant in hospitals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on any given day, one in 25 hospital patients has a hospital-acquired infection.
  4. Organize shifts among relatives to ensure the patient is always accompanied if hospitalized.Don’t let loved ones go it alone.  But only enlist those who are observant and communicate well with others.  
  5. Pay attention, be observant, take notes and provide information readily while in the hospital. Ask questions, but courteously. Keep a record of the name and shifts of nurses and doctors.
  6. Don’t hesitate to speak up for clean hands,” to quote the CDC. Cleanliness helps prevent infection. Ask the medical staff to wear gloves or use foam hand sanitizer before touching you. Wash your own hands frequently; make sure visitors, too. And ask cleaning staff to regularly sanitize objects that others touch.
  7. Speak up—politely—if you think something is wrong. Listen to your gut: doctors and nurses are human and can make mistakes. (If all else fails, go up the hospital food chain—ask for a meeting with “risk management” and a hospital care team to discuss your concerns.)
  8. It’s best not to chat with the nurse when he or she is dispensing your meds; distraction can lead to medication mistakes. Take care to know your pills in every way possible.  Ask the nurse to review each pill with you before you swallow it.
  9. Exercise vigilance especially during the admission and discharge process.  The potential for errors most likely occur during admission or discharge.    
  10. Obtain copies of your written discharge instructions.  Make sure you completely understand your follow-up plan after a doctor’s visit, emergency room visit or hospitalization.  Know what medications you’ll be taking and how often, and when to follow up with your physician. It sounds obvious, but in one recent study, 54% of discharged patients couldn’t accurately recall their follow-up instructions! 

Why Medical Errors Happen

The modern healthcare system is remarkably complex.  Various factors contribute to an environment where mistakes are more likely to occur.  For example, hospitals are trapped between tight financial constraints and patient care.  Often, they’re under pressure to discharge patients quickly—sometimes too early—to free up beds. Many hospitals are chronically understaffed with regards to nurses (the patient’s primary point of contact!) and support staff (like janitors, charged with the very important job of keeping the hospital clean).

It’s no better for physicians, who experience competing priorities and multi-tasks. Today’s doctor spends hours on documentation and insurance forms.  This is time diverted from patient care and communication.  At the same time, they’re reimbursed by health insurers at ever-shrinking rates, even as their malpractice insurance premiums soar.  This is why many doctors are increasing their patient load or relying on less-qualified Physician Assistants to handle their caseload. End result: less one-on-one time with patients and a greater risk of something falling through the cracks.

For all these reasons, patients and their families need to take a more active role in managing their healthcare. They need to be informed and vigilant. They need to be ready to advocate for themselves whenever necessary.  Of course, it’s impossible to eliminate 100% of your risk of medical error. But you can pay attention, speak out and speak up.  Your odds improve immensely.  

With over 36 years of clinical experience in Critical Care nursing, home based health care and expertise as a cardiovascular nurse clinician, Teri is well acquainted with the complexities of the modern healthcare system. She has served as a nursing leader, mentor, educator, and consistent patient advocate throughout her career in some of the best hospitals across the country. Her passion to keep the patient at the center of the model of nursing care led her to incorporate NShore Patient Advocates, LLC in 2011, serving clients throughout the northern suburbs of Chicago.

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