There is no question that the United States has some of the best doctors and medical facilities in the world. Yet it remains a sad fact that the rate of medical mistakes is far higher than they should be. These errors can result in patient injuries, higher bills and even fatalities. As many as 250,000 people die every year due to these medical errors, making it the third-leading cause of death in America.
One study found that 1 in 5 Americans have been the victims of medical mistakes, suggesting Americans are far more vulnerable than we would like to think. Another study found that doctors who have burnout are twice as likely to cause a medical error. When care providers are overly stressed, they will have more difficulty diagnosing problems, determining the best treatment(s) and even doing procedures.
Our medical system is also very complex. One illness can involve many medications, tests, surgical procedures and caregivers. In this complex web, it is all too easy for information to get lost or miscommunicated. Below are some of the key problems that occur in our medical care system, as well as some tips for how best to avoid or prevent them.
Errors often happen when a care provider is making a diagnosis. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 10-20% of diagnoses are not correct, delayed or missed entirely. Additionally, 2-5% of diagnostic lab tests include an error in the test or testing procedure, or the results are not read correctly by care providers.
In a study of over 350,000 medical malpractice lawsuits, researchers found that problems with diagnoses were the most common. About 35% of claims involved a diagnostic mistake. These errors were some of the most serious and in many cases resulted in death or permanent injury.
There were more diagnostic problems with outpatient than inpatient care, but errors with inpatient care were more likely to be fatal. Problems with diagnoses were also more likely to result in death or serious disability claims, affecting 80,000 to 160,000 patients every year.
Surgical Safety Issues
Among health care providers, surgeons and OB/GYN specialists are the most likely to be sued for malpractice. Failure to diagnose a problem correctly (31%) and complications from treatment (27%) are the most likely reasons for a healthcare professional face legal action.
According to a Johns Hopkins study, 4,000 avoidable surgical errors happen every year – mistakes that include operating on the wrong part of a patient’s body.
Scarily enough, between 1-5% of doctor prescriptions may involve an error. These mistakes range from having incorrect directions printed on the bottle, to being given the wrong dose or medication. Pharmacists can also fail to realize that patients may have an adverse drug interaction, especially if they have been given a new prescription.
In hospitals, prescription errors can include receiving the wrong dose, being given medications at the wrong time, or side effects or interactions with other medications. Health care providers may also make careless mistakes when reading prescriptions or selecting medications from a drop-down menu on a computer.
Being a Member of the Healthcare Team
To help care providers prevent medical errors, individuals must be informed and educated about their own conditions as well as those of their loved ones. It is important to be involved in health care decisions and to ask questions so that choices can be made with the patient and family members’ input.
One of the main causes of medical errors is communication difficulties when information is exchanged with only some healthcare providers, but not others. Individuals must make sure that there is one person, likely the primary care doctor, who is overseeing care and communicating with other treatment providers. With one person managing these details, errors are less likely to happen.
Proactive on Prescriptions
When it comes to things like medications, knowledge is power. Individuals need to know which drugs they take, how much, and when and why they are taking these medications. Because it can be difficult to remember this information, it may be helpful to keep a bag with empty prescription bottles in one’s car to easily access that information. It is equally important to keep an updated medical history, including drug allergies, and medications and other supplements. Giving these details to all care providers ensures that everyone knows the same information.
When being prescribed a new medication, patients should always ask for the written side effects. Patients and their caregivers should also understand which kinds of reactions to the medication are normal and which are abnormal.
Because many drug names sound similar, individuals should make sure they can correctly read the prescription. It is equally important to talk with the pharmacist about how and when to take the prescription, and how to measure it accurately.
Before having surgery, individuals and caregivers should try to find a hospital that does their particular procedure regularly. It’s critical to have a conversation with one’s primary care doctor and surgeon before the operation to clarify what will be done, and which areas of the body will be affected.
When leaving the hospital, individuals and caregivers should make sure they understand how to care for themselves or their loved one at home. In addition, it’s important to have a conversation with one’s primary care doctor to discuss when they can return to doing everyday activities.
Two Heads Are Better Than One
At any consultation with a doctor or other healthcare provider, it’s important to ask questions about one’s diagnosis and how to proceed. When possible, it’s also helpful to have another person come along to the appointment to act as an advocate. A friend or family member can ask additional questions and remember care instructions.
Above all, individuals and caregivers need to research and understand their medical conditions or those of their loved one, and why certain test or treatments may be recommended. When in doubt, don’t ever be afraid to get a second opinion and to learn more about possible options. Very often an ounce of care and education can be worth a pound of cure.