Medical Errors and How to Avoid Them

Part 1 of 2

Medical ErrorMedical errors are problems that can happen at any stage in today's complex health care system. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine issued a report, which estimated that approximately 44,000 to 98,000 people die in U.S. hospitals every year as a result of mistakes. Some people think medical errors only happen in hospitals, however they can also occur in the doctor's office, in outpatient facilities or clinics, even at the pharmacy. Errors can also be made in the prescribing of medications, in diagnoses and tests, even in surgery.

Examples of common medical errors include:

• Prescribing the wrong medication due to not having complete patient information (not knowing about patients' allergies or other medicines they are taking)

• Patients receiving the wrong medication due to miscommunication between physicians and pharmacists (most often as a result of poor handwriting, confusion between drugs with similar names, numeric and dosing mistakes, and inappropriate abbreviations).

• Errors in diagnosis (such as misinterpretation of test results, not using the right diagnostic tools or not responding to abnormal test results)

• Infections (due to inefficient hand washing)

• Mistakes in following medical orders (such as failing to give a patient a salt-free meal as ordered by the doctor)

This information is not designed to alarm you. In fact, experts agree that the health care system in the United States is safe. But improvements can and need to be made. Several departments of the federal government have implemented programs to increase patient safety such as evaluating brand names of medications in an attempt to avoid sound-alike and look-alike names. Technology, too has been developed to help reduce errors including computer programs that double-check diagnoses and electronic prescriptions that are used instead of handwritten ones to further reduce the chance of errors.

But patients also have a role in preventing medical errors. There are a variety of ways you can help prevent medical errors from happening, including:

Join the Team
The best way you can protect yourself from medical errors is to be an active member of your health care team. You have a say in what treatments you receive and how you receive them. By being a part of every decision made regarding your health, and having a good understanding of your condition and/or treatment, you are less likely to encounter errors.

Know What You Are Taking
When your doctor prescribes a medication for you, ask as many questions as you need. Make sure you know the name of the medication, the dosage and what it is supposed to do. This way, when you go to pick up the medication from the pharmacy, you can easily tell if it's the correct medication.

Tell It Like It Is
Be sure to tell your doctor about any medications you are taking. This includes prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, even herbals or vitamin supplements, minerals, laxatives, pain relievers, or sleeping aids. It is very important that your doctor know what you are taking because some prescription medications do not interact well with other drugs. In fact, some drug interactions can be very dangerous.

Updated on: 03/21/16
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Medical Errors: Prescriptions and Procedures
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Medical Errors: Prescriptions and Procedures

Proactive patients ask questions about their care including keeping track of medications to help prevent medical errors.
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