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Protect yourself from medical errors

Being an involved and informed patient can help you avoid medical errors.

Human beings being human beings, medical errors can and do happen—in hospitals, doctors' offices and even in patients' homes. These errors can range from a wrong diagnosis or mistake in medication to surgery performed on the wrong body part—a rare, but possible, event.

Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals do all they can to prevent errors. But they aren't the only ones who can help make healthcare safe. You also have a role to play—a key one. You can make your care significantly safer by being an involved and informed patient. The more you participate in your care, the more likely you are to prevent mistakes.

So how can you be an informed member of your healthcare team? Follow these seven tips from the American Academy of Family Physicians and The Joint Commission, which sets standards for hospitals and other healthcare providers:

1. Speak up. Never be embarrassed if you don't understand something a doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional tells you. If you have any questions or concerns about any aspect of your care—including its safety or quality—raise them. If you don't understand or still have concerns, ask again.

Speaking up is especially important if you suspect you might be about to have the wrong lab test or procedure. For instance, if you were supposed to have a potassium test and a lab technologist or other medical professional refers to a "chemistry panel" point out the inconsistency right away.

And always trust your instincts. If something doesn't seem quite right, be sure to say so.

2. Be sure certain procedures are followed. Always watch to see if your doctors, nurses or other caregivers have washed their hands before they examine or touch you. Handwashing is the No. 1 way to fend off potentially dangerous infections.

Healthcare professionals should also wear gloves when taking blood or other samples. And if you're getting a blood transfusion, the nurse should check your identification before starting it.

3. Keep your healthcare team informed. All of your doctors should know about everything you take for health purposes, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, such as vitamins and herbs. Your doctors should also know about any allergies you might have and any adverse reactions you have had to medicines.

4. Talk to your pharmacist. Whenever you pick up medicine from the pharmacy, ask whether it is the medicine your doctor prescribed. Research suggests that nearly 90% of all medicine errors involve the wrong drug or the wrong dose.

Also, if you have any questions at all about how to safely take a medicine (either prescription or over-the-counter), ask.

5. Ask a trusted friend or family member to act as your advocate. At the doctor's office or during a hospital stay, your advocate can ask questions that might not occur to you when you're under stress.

If you are admitted to the hospital, your advocate can stay with you—even overnight. He or she can help guarantee that you get the right tests, medicines and treatments.

6. Guard against lab mistakes. If possible, make sure any sample you give is labeled with your full name and another piece of identifying information. And don't assume that no news is good news. Call your doctor and ask for test results if they don't arrive when expected.

7. Prepare for surgery and recovery. Is an operation in your future? Then be certain that you, your doctor and your surgeon all agree and are completely clear on what the operation will involve.

Be aware, too, that your surgeon may mark the spot on your body to be operated on. This will eliminate any chance of operating on the wrong body part—for example, the right knee instead of the left one. Should the mark rub off, alert your nurse or a surgeon.

When it's time for you to be discharged, ask your doctor to review the treatment plan you will use at home and when it's safe for you to resume your normal activities.

Reviewed 8/1/2022

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