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Health Maintenance|prevention

Medical Errors: Tips to Help Prevent Them

Last Updated March 2021 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

Medical errors are one of the nation’s leading causes of death and injury. A 2013 study in the Journal of Patient Safety estimates that as many as 440,000 patient deaths are caused each year in U.S. hospitals by preventable adverse events (medical errors).

Path to safety

The most important way you can help prevent errors is to be an active member of your health care team. This means taking part in each decision about your health. 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 what medicine(s) you take. This includes prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs, as well as supplements, vitamins, and herbs. At least once a year, bring all of your medicines with you to your doctor.
  • Make sure your doctor knows about all allergies you have. This includes if you have had adverse reactions to certain 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.
  • Ask for written information about the side effects your medicine could cause. If you know what might happen, you will be better prepared. This way, you know what problems to look for and can get help, if needed. Make sure you know if you should call the doctor or get emergency care.
  • Ask for a list of ingredients in the medicine. You should check this for possible allergies.

Talk to your pharmacist.

  • When you pick up medicine from the pharmacy, confirm that your doctor prescribed it.
  • Medicine labels can be hard to understand. Ask questions about the directions. For example, ask if “4 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. Ask questions if you are not sure how to use it. Research shows that many people do not understand the right way to measure liquid medicines. For example, household teaspoons do not hold a true teaspoon of liquid.

Prevent errors in the hospital.

  • If you can, 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 lot of practice with their condition.
  • Make sure all health care workers who have direct contact with you wash their hands. Hand washing is an important way to prevent the spread of infections.
  • Before surgery, make sure that you, your doctor, and your surgeon all agree and are clear on exactly what will be done. This can prevent errors and confusion during and after surgery. For example, surgery at the wrong site, such as left knee instead of right knee, is rare. But even once is too often. The good news is that wrong-site surgery is 100% preventable. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons urges surgeons to sign their initials directly on the site to operate on before the surgery.
  • When you get discharged from the hospital, ask your doctor to explain the treatment plan you will use at home. This includes learning about your medicines and knowing when you can return to normal life. Research shows that at discharge time, doctors think their patients understand more than they really do.

Take charge of 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 primary doctor, is in charge of your care. This is especially important if you have several, ongoing health problems.
  • Ask a family member or friend to support your health. They can help keep track of things 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 conditions, tests, and treatments.

  • Gather as much information as you can from your doctor. In some cases, you may want to get a second opinion. You can do research on your own as well to make sure you understand your problems and options.
  • Know that “more” is not always better. Find out why you need a test or treatment 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. Follow up to get the results.
  • Ask your doctor if your treatment is based on the latest evidence. You also can ask your doctor about new trials or studies.

Things to consider

A study by the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences found that 88% of medical errors involve the wrong drug or the wrong dose. This is one more reason why you should be a part of your health care. For prescriptions, know what medicine and dose you take. Check this when you pick up refills at the pharmacy. In the hospital, have in writing the medicine and dose you need. Keep track of this each time the doctor or nurse gives you drugs.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Do I have a health condition?
  • What tests do I need to confirm the condition?
  • What are my treatments options? What are the pros and cons of each option?
  • Are there new trials or studies that I should consider?
  • Do I need to take medicines? If so, what do you recommend?
  • What is the medicine for, or what does it treat?
  • What are the possible side effects, and what do I do if they occur?
  • How do I take the medicine?
  • For how long do I need to take the medicine?
  • Is this medicine safe to take with other medicines?
  • What foods, drinks, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?
  • If I need surgery, what is the plan before, during, and after the procedure?


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Guidelines and Measures

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