Medical errors aren’t limited to hospitals.
Maybe you’ve heard horror stories about medical errors, such as a person who was left paralyzed on one side of the body after doctors failed to recognize signs of a stroke or a patient who had the wrong leg removed during surgery. Although these devastating types of medical errors do happen, many medical mistakes are much smaller in scale. Still, medical errors of any size can cause problems.
Harm in health care, which is another phrase some might use instead of medical errors, isn’t limited to hospitals. It can happen anywhere health care is delivered, says Dr. Jeff Brady, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety in the Washington, D.C., area. The AHRQ is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Medical errors can happen at:
— Doctors’ offices.
— Nursing homes.
— Surgical centers.
— Your home.
Medical error facts:
Here are a few facts about the impact of medical errors:
— An estimated 10% of patients in high-income countries are harmed while receiving hospital care, according to the World Health Organization.
— Medical errors result in about 100,000 deaths in hospitals and clinics annually, according to a 2021 report in StatPearls, a medical content service for health professionals.
— As many as 40% of patients are harmed in primary and outpatient health care, the WHO reports. Of these incidents, up to 80% are preventable.
— The most harmful errors in the primary and outpatient health care settings are related to diagnosis, prescriptions and use of medicines.
Common medical errors:
Here are a few examples of common medical errors:
— A health provider unintentionally misdiagnoses your health problem. “While not intentional, this error can lead to delayed treatments,” says Dr. Ada Stewart, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a practicing family physician in Columbia, South Carolina.
— You are in the hospital for surgery but end up getting an infection that could have been avoided.
— A staff member at your doctor’s office is inputting drug information into the computer. They mistakenly put the information into another patient’s account instead of yours.
Patients play a role.
It may seem easy to place the blame for medical errors fully on health providers, but patients play a role in helping to improve their care so they can avoid harm.
Here are a few things you may do as a patient that could negatively affect your care:
— You don’t disclose all information about your past medical history, Stewart says. This gives health providers an incomplete picture and could make it harder to diagnose a problem.
— don’t share all of your potentially risky behaviors, such as smoking or drinking. “These are important factors that may influence care and treatment decisions,” Stewart says.
— You don’t provide a full list of the medications you use. This may be an oversight versus an intentional action. For instance, when a doctor asks about the drugs you use, you may not think to mention over-the-counter or herbal supplements, but those also are important for the doctor to know.
7 tips to improve your health care and prevent medical errors:
Although you can’t avoid all potential medical errors, there are some moves you can make to help lessen your chances of experiencing one. Here are seven steps to follow to aim for better-quality care, with fewer errors:
1. Come prepared in advance for any scheduled doctor’s appointment.
A doctor’s time is extremely limited, and you want to get to the main point of why you are there, says Dr. David Newman-Toker, director of the division of neuro-visual and vestibular disorders in the Department of Neurology and director of the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute Center for Diagnostic Excellence at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. Being thoughtful with your health information helps you to get better care.
Newman-Toker recommends preparing a “one-page executive summary,” where you explain the highlights of your health concern in advance. This gives you time to focus on details that will be helpful to the doctor — such as how your symptoms have changed over time — instead of any less-important details.
The Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine has a four-page Patient’s Toolkit for Diagnosis that allows you to gather your information in advance. You can include details on your medical history, medications, symptoms related to your current health problem, goals for the appointment and steps to follow after your appointment. You can fill out the toolkit online, or print it and write your answers.
The AHRQ also has a QuestionBuilder app available via Google Play or the Apple App store to help select questions you would like to ask during a medical appointment.
2. Prepare a medication list.
Your health providers want to know about all types of medications and supplements you’re using. This helps ensure you’re using the right medications and avoid the prescribing of medications that don’t go together safely.
If you use several drugs, it can be easy to forget some, and you may not remember all dosing information when you’re at the doctor’s office. The solution? Prepare a list of over-the-counter and prescription medications and supplements in advance. Information to include on your medication list:
— Name of the medication.
— Why you take it.
— Name of the prescriber.
There are also apps that allow you to snap photos of your pill bottles, so you don’t have to remember complex drug names and dosages, Brady says.
As a low-tech solution, the AHRQ also has a wallet card where you can list out your medications and carry it with you.
3. Bring a trusted friend or family member with you to an appointment.
Bringing someone helps lessen the chance of medical errors in a few ways:
— There’s often a lot of information to absorb at a doctor’s appointment. The person with you can listen and process information that you might miss.
— Your companion may think to ask important questions.
— If you’re receiving complex instructions for care at home after a procedure or surgery, it’ll be a lot easier to remember if you have someone else there with you to help remember — or take notes — regarding what needs to be done.
Make sure you don’t mind if the person coming with you hears your health information, so you can still be 100% honest with your physician, Stewart advises.
4. Ask questions.
“Asking questions — and making sure you understand the answers — is one of the most important things you can do to make sure you get the safest care possible,” Brady says.
It may seem intimidating to question what the doctor is saying, but you want to have a provider who is willing to interact with you and share their thought process, Newman-Toker adds.
One question that Newman-Toker encourages if you’re trying to get a new health problem diagnosed: “What’s the worst thing that this may be and why?”
If the provider doesn’t think you have that worst-case problem, ask why. This gives you insight into how they’re thinking and their openness to working with you to help identify your health problem.
5. Seek a second opinion or a new doctor if needed.
Newman-Toker says he always encourages patients to get a second opinion if that makes them more comfortable. If you sense the doctor doesn’t take your questions seriously, it’s OK to seek out a new health provider, he says. You want to work with someone who will take you and your health seriously.
6. Stay vigilant if you aren’t getting better.
Say that the doctor prescribes an antibiotic for a suspected infection. You circle back to the doctor twice because the antibiotic isn’t helping. By that second time, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether there are any other health problems to consider instead of the original diagnosis, Newman-Toker says.
He tells the story of a 75-year-old woman who went blind in both eyes from a condition called giant cell arteritis. The condition was missed by her doctor, who just thought she had a sinus infection and continually prescribed medication for that instead of doing further testing.
7. Talk to the provider if you suspect there’s a medical error.
Sometimes, what may seem like a medical error could just be a simple misunderstanding, and the provider may need to help you understand the information more clearly. Returning to your provider for further explanation or to talk about what’s going on can often help clear up things, Stewart says.
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Update 06/09/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.