The credo of doctors and medical professionals is “First, do no harm,” right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way. The World Health Organization estimates that in developed countries, 1 in 10 hospital patients are harmed during their care. Even more shocking, preventable hospital errors have been shown to be the third leading cause of death in the United States.
According to the National Patient Safety Foundation, medical errors can often be caused by a single misstep in a patient’s care. Hospitals and medical staff are becoming more aware of this issue and doing more to fight preventable hospital errors and deaths.
But patients have a role to play too. With doctors and nurses caring for multiple patients and juggling a heavy workload, you can be a great ally in keeping yourself and your family safe while in the hospital. Here are 7 issues that the National Patient Safety Foundation recommends you watch out for:
1. Diagnostic Errors.
Diagnostic errors occur when a patient receives the wrong diagnosis. This can happen because of equipment failure, hidden disease symptoms, communication errors or failure on a doctor’s part to fully investigate a situation. To prevent a diagnostic error, be sure to be as clear and honest as possible with your care providers, keeping records of your symptoms, medications and hospitalizations. Be proactive about researching medications and treatments, as well as making sure to get test results yourself, rather than just relying on your doctor to tell you. For more on diagnostic errors, see NPSF’s Checklist for Getting the Right Diagnosis.
2. Hospital-Acquired Infections.
In the U.S., 1 in 20 patients acquire an infection while in the hospital. Sometimes, these infections can be the “superbugs” we commonly hear about that resistant to antibiotics. These infections are often from a surgical site, pneumonia or from a catheter. There are a few things you can do to help prevent these infections. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly while in the hospital and remind doctors, nurses and aides to do the same. Ask friends and relatives not to visit if they’re feeling ill. And notify your medical staff of any problems with your care or pain as soon as possible.
Falls are very common among older adults, both in the hospital and at home. If you’re worried about falls, ask your doctors or nurses what you can do to prevent falls while in the hospital and read about how to prevent falls at home as well.
4. Medication Errors.
According to the Institute of Medicine, medication errors harm 1.5 million Americans each year. While you may not be an expert on prescription drugs, you can help prevent a medication error by double checking with the pharmacist the drugs you are currently on and the drugs you have been prescribed, as well as the dosing instructions. When your doctor prescribes a medication, make sure you know what it’s for and what it will do, as well as both the brand name and generic names for the medication. You can help spot errors and prevent medication problems.
When a patient hasn’t been well taken care of, it can lead to a hospital readmission – needing to go back into the hospital less than 30 days after being discharged. Many times this happens because a patient wasn’t able to continue the kind of care they needed at home. Patients can help prevent readmission by asking their doctors and nurses the right questions about their care after discharge. The National Patient Safety Foundation offers a printable Post-Discharge tool to make sure you get the right information about your care.
6. Wrong-Site Surgery.
We’ve all heard of situations where doctor’s operated on the wrong arm or leg or even the wrong patient! It sounds extreme, but it does happen. To prevent it from happening to you, be sure to clearly state and remind the medical staff you’re working with what area of the body will be operated on. Many hospitals and clinics will mark the body with a permanent marker or other tool. Be sure that the doctors and nurses know your name and have verified your identity so you are not mistaken for another patient. Because surgery often requires anesthesia, it’s good to have a family member with you to verify these important details with the medical staff.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do as a patient is ask lots of questions – about your diagnosis, about your treatment, and about anything that concerns you. Your diligence as a patient could mean the difference between a life-threatening medical error and a life-saving medical intervention.