Medical error is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. – behind heart disease and cancer – according to a troubling new report. More than 250,000 Americans die as a result of medication mistakes and surgical errors, Johns Hopkins University researchers estimate.
In reporting their findings in the British Medical Journal (BMJ)
, lead researchers Martin Makary and Michael Daniel said human error can never be completely eliminated from healthcare, but said more transparency in medical practices and greater awareness of the problem are needed.
“Sound scientific methods, beginning with an assessment of the problem, are critical to approaching any health threat to patients,” they said, in calling for “creating a culture of learning from our mistakes, thereby advancing the science of safety and moving us closer towards creating learning health systems.”
According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, older Americans are most at risk from medical errors. As many as one in seven Medicare patients experiences medical errors that occur in hospitals, clinics, surgery centers, doctors' offices, nursing homes, pharmacies, and patients' homes. Mistakes can involve medicines, surgery, diagnosis, equipment, or lab reports.
But there are steps you can take to reduce your odds of becoming a victim. Here’s how to stay safe:
- Make sure your doctors know about every drug you are taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, vitamins, and herbs.
- Bring all of your medicines and supplements to your doctor visits to help determine whether there are any problems from mixing medications.
- Tell your doctor about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medicines to avoid being prescribed something that could harm you.
- When your doctor writes 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.
- Ask for information about your medicines: What is the medicine for? How am I supposed to take it? What side effects are possible and what should I do if they occur? Can I take it with other medicines or dietary supplements? What food, drink, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?
- Ask questions about the directions on your medicine labels. For example, ask if "four times daily" means taking a dose every six hours around the clock or only during regular waking hours.
The bottom line:
- During a hospital stay, ask all healthcare workers who will touch you whether they have washed their hands to reduce your risk of contracting an infection.
- When you’re discharged, ask your doctor to explain the treatment plan you will follow at home, including medicines you need to take, when to schedule follow-up appointments, and when it’s safe to get back to your regular activities.
- If you are undergoing surgery, make sure that you, your doctor, and your surgeon all agree on exactly what will be done. Make sure your surgeon signs his or her initials directly on the site to be operated on before the surgery to avoid surgical mistakes or “wrong site” errors.
- Choose a hospital where many patients have had the procedure or surgery you need.
- Research shows that patients have better results when they are treated in hospitals that have a lot of experience with their condition.
- Speak up if you have questions or concerns.
- Make sure that someone, such as your primary care doctor, coordinates your care.
- Make sure that all your doctors have your important health information.
- Ask a family member or friend to help be an advocate, listen in on doctor discussions, and go to appointments with you.
- Learn about your condition and the range of treatment options by asking your doctor and using other reliable sources, including reputable health Websites, to be sure you are getting the latest and best care for your condition.
The best way you can help to prevent errors is to be an active member of your healthcare 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.
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