Medical Errors: Tips to Help Prevent Them

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Medical errors are one of the nation's leading causes of death and injury. A report by the Institute of Medicine estimates that as many as 98,000 people die in U.S. hospitals each year as the result of medical errors.

Government agencies, purchasers of group health care, physicians and other health care providers are working together to make the U.S. health care system safer.

How can I help protect myself against medical errors?

The single most important 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.

Keep your health care team informed.

  • Make sure that all of your doctors know about everything you are taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and dietary supplements such as vitamins and herbs. At least once a year, bring all of your medicines and supplements with you to your doctor.
  • Make sure your doctor knows about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medicines. This can help you avoid getting a medicine that can harm you.
  • Make sure that all health professionals involved in your care have important health information about you. Do not assume that everyone knows everything they need to.

Ask to get information about your medicines in terms you can understand.

  • Ask for this information both when your medicines are prescribed and when you receive them. See the box below for a list of questions you should ask about your prescription.
  • Ask for written information about the side effects your medicine could cause. If you know what might happen, you will be better prepared. That way, you can report the problem right away, especially if something unexpected happens, and you can get help before it gets worse.
  • When your doctor writes you a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can't read your doctor's handwriting, your pharmacist might not be able to either.

Questions to ask about your medicines

  • 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 (both prescription and over-the-counter) or dietary supplements I am taking?
  • What food, drink or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?

Talk to your pharmacist.

  • When you pick up your medicine from the pharmacy, ask whether it is the medicine that your doctor prescribed. A study by the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences found that 88 percent of medicine errors involved the wrong drug or the wrong dose.
  • If you have any questions about the directions on your medicine labels, ask. Medicine labels can be hard to understand. For example, ask if "four doses daily" means taking a dose every 6 hours around the clock or just during regular waking hours.
  • Ask your pharmacist for the best device to measure your liquid medicine. Also, ask questions if you're not sure how to use it. Research shows that many people do not understand the right way to measure liquid medicines. For example, many use household teaspoons, which often do not hold a true teaspoon of liquid.

In the hospital

  • If you have a choice, choose a hospital at which many patients have 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.
  • If you are in a hospital, consider asking all health care workers who have direct contact with you whether they have washed their hands. Handwashing is an important way to prevent the spread of infections in hospitals.
  • When you are being discharged from the hospital, ask your doctor to explain the treatment plan you will use at home. This includes learning about your medicines and finding out when you can get back to your regular activities. Research shows that at discharge time, doctors think their patients understand more than they really do about what they should or should not do when they return home.

Before surgery

  • If you are having surgery, make sure that you, your doctor and your surgeon all agree and are clear on exactly what will be done. Doing surgery at the wrong site (for example, operating on the left knee instead of the right) is rare. But even once is too often. The good news is that wrong-site surgery is 100 percent preventable. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons urges surgeons to sign their initials directly on the site to be operated on before the surgery.

Take responsibility for your health care.

  • Speak up if you have questions or concerns. You have a right to question anyone who is involved with your care.
  • Make sure that someone, such as your personal doctor, is in charge of your care. This is especially important if you have many health problems or are in a hospital.
  • Ask a family member or friend to be there with you and to be your advocate (someone who can help get things done and speak up for you if you can't). Even if you think you don't need help now, you might need it later.

Learn more about your condition and the tests and treatments recommended by your doctor.

  • 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.
  • If you have a test, don't assume that no news is good news. Ask about the results.
  • Ask your doctor and nurse and use other reliable sources to get more information about your condition and treatments. For example, treatment recommendations based on the latest scientific evidence are available from the National Guidelines Clearinghouse. Ask your doctor if your treatment is based on the latest evidence.

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Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 11/10
Created: 09/02

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