25 Tips to Help Protect Yourself from Medical Errors

There are few people who haven't heard the horror stories about patients who have gone in for a simple medical procedure and ended up with legs amputated or undergoing unnecessary surgical procedures. While these cases are few and far between, millions of medical errors are made each year that can leave patients with infections and additional injuries, many of which can be life threatening. You may not be able to control every element of your medical care, but you can do a few simple things that can help to reduce the chances that errors are made with your treatment.

General

Use these general tips to ensure that your next trip to the hospital is a safe and healthy one.

  1. Get involved in your care. Don't just sit idly by and hope that everything goes ok with your care. Take an active role in the decisions that are made. Studies have shown that patients who get involved generally get better care, so make an effort to take charge of your medical issues.
  2. Ask questions. When it comes to your medical care, no question is a stupid one. You have a right to know the details of anything related to your care, so never be afraid to ask. It can prevent errors, complications and problems in the future.
  3. Get to know your caregivers and make sure your personal physician is involved. If you can avoid it, don't undergo surgeries or routine procedures with doctors you have no previous association with. If you can't avoid it, make it a point to get to know those who will be giving you care. The better they know you, the higher quality of care they can provide, as they will know more about your personal issues and conditions.
  4. Don't forget the details. When it comes to medical care, no detail is too small. The tiniest chest pain, previous operation or medication you're taking can have a huge impact on the outcome of your care. In order to avoid potentially dangerous complications, ensure that your caregivers have all the information they'll need, even if you don't think it's a big deal.
  5. Take the initiative to learn about your conditions and treatments. If you've just been diagnosed with a new condition, take the time to learn about just what it is either independently or through your healthcare provider. This will help ensure you know what treatments are appropriate and any complications or side effects that you may encounter so there won't be any surprises.

Medication

Perhaps the easiest and most common place for medical errors to occur is in medications. Here are some tips to keep your prescriptions safe in and out of the hospital.

  1. Disclose all medications you are taking, even OTC products. Sometimes even herbal supplements and vitamins can interact with prescription medications, so make sure your doctor knows everything you are taking, not just the prescribed drugs. To be extra careful, try occasionally bringing in all your medications to your doctor's office to ensure there are no potential problems.
  2. Make sure your physician knows of any allergies you have. While there may be no way around drug allergies you don't know you have, you certainly can avoid disaster by disclosing all allergies you do know you have to your doctor before any treatment. This will prevent medications from being prescribed to you that you will have an adverse reaction to.
  3. Ask about prescriptions. While your physician is likely plenty qualified to choose a medication for you, you as the patient have the right to know why this medication is needed and how it works. It will help you avoid potentially dangerous situations when taking the medication and let you know a little bit more about the benefits and side effects of taking it.
  4. Find out the correct dosage. Before taking any prescriptions, double check with your doctor and the pharmacy about the dosage of your medications. One of the easiest places for errors to occur is in dosage levels, so it's always better to be safe than sorry.
  5. Double check any medications you pick up at the pharmacy. While a majority of the time your medications will be right when you pick them up, it's always a good idea to check. Look at the dosage as well as the name of the drug to ensure it's correct. If your medication looks different than normal, make sure to ask why. Don't just assume it's due to manufacturer changes.
  6. Make sure prescriptions are legible. Doctors are notorious for their poor handwriting and sometimes this can make prescriptions nearly illegible, even to pharmacists who are used to dealing with the scrawls. In order to prevent any reading errors, make sure your prescriptions are readable and that your pharmacist is sure of the medication and dosage.
  7. Learn the side effects. Some medications can take care of one problem but create a number of others. Before you start taking any new medications be aware of all the side effects and alert your doctor immediately if you experience severe reactions.
  8. Get all medications from the same place. Many pharmacies nowadays have computer systems that will alert them of any potential drug interactions before you even pick up your prescription. You can help ensure this system works by getting your medications from the same pharmacy each time.
  9. Be precise in your dosage. Liquid medications can be tricky to measure out just right as many household teaspoons aren't actually a teaspoons. Using a marked syringe can ensure a more accurate dosage. Ask your pharmacist about the most accurate way to take your medication.

Surgery

Surgery can be a scary enough experience without worrying about medical errors. These tips can help minimize your risks.

  1. Make sure everyone involved in your surgery knows exactly what is to be done. One way to prevent egregious errors in surgery is to ensure that everyone on your surgical team knows you and the details of your surgery. This will help reduce the chances of errors on the day of your operation.
  2. More isn't always better. Before you have any kind of surgery, make absolutely sure it's something you really need or are prepared to deal with the consequences of if something goes wrong. The fewer procedures you have, the fewer chances you'll have for errors to be made.
  3. Choose a hospital with experience. Studies have shown that fewer errors occur and patients are generally more successful when they have procedures done at hospitals that frequently do the kind of procedure the patient needs. Research hospitals in your area to find out which has the most experience to reduce the chances of a mishap due to lack of experience.
  4. Learn about your surgeon. Before choosing a medical professional to do your operation, do a little research beforehand. You may find surgeons in your area that specialize in the kind of treatment you need or who have credentials that might make them a better choice.
  5. Know the procedure. One way to help reduce errors made before, during and after surgery is to not only work with those who are experienced but to educate yourself on the procedure you're having done. Knowing what will be cut, taken out or altered can help you better understand the care and medications you'll need to get well.
  6. Find a specialist. While specialists aren't immune from errors, you can help reduce the chance of mistakes made from inexperience and unfamiliarity by choosing a specialist who is well versed in the area you need treatment for.
  7. Highlight the site of the surgery. For those worried about operations being performed on the wrong side or on the wrong organ, you can help reduce your nervousness by marking out the site of your operation with a marker before you go in. This will help calm your nerves as well as serve as a reminder for doctors.

Hospital Stays

Keep your hospital stay a relatively painless experience with these tips.

  1. Follow up on your test results. Don't assume that just because you haven't heard back that your results were fine. Make sure to follow up with any tests you have done to make sure that things are ok and so that no future errors in treatment will be made due to lack of information.
  2. Ensure that hospital employees wash their hands. Recent studies have shown that hospital employees who knew someone was watching them were more likely to wash their hands than those that thought they were going unobserved. Turn the odds in your favor by insisting employees wash up. It may make you feel uncomfortable, but it will help keep dangerous bacteria away from your wounds.
  3. Ask about follow up treatment. Many doctors assume patients will know what to do when they get home after a hospital stay. The reality is that many are clueless. Talk with your doctor about what you'll need to do to keep infections at bay, and make sure you're on the path to wellness after you leave the hospital.
  4. Ask a family member or friend to be there. Conditions that can land you in the hospital can sometimes make it difficult to speak up or ask questions for yourself. Get someone there to watch out for you and ask any questions that you can't.

While medical errors likely will always be a risk of any medical treatment you don't have to sit idly by and let them happen. Take an active role in your treatment and you can help to greatly reduce your chances of having something go wrong.