The Annual Death Toll of Medical Errors Approaches 100,000

A Recent Institute of Medicine report revealed that up to 98,000 Americans are killed in hospitals every year and thousands more are injured due to medical errors that could have been avoided. This makes medical mistakes one of the leading causes of death. 1.5 million Americans are injured every year as a result of medication mistakes. In this blog, we’ll discuss some medical mistakes that can result in patient harm or death, as well as tips patients can use to avoid being harmed by medical errors.

How Doctors and Patients Can Avoid Medical Errors

Doctors

  • Many medical mistakes involve the incorrect administration of medicine. Often, these mistakes occur due to a doctor’s handwriting. By using computerized medication systems, where the doctor just has to choose the drug and the appropriate dosage from a computer menu, mistakes can be avoided.
  • Having a full electronic health record for each patient enables doctors to check new prescriptions against a patient’s history and allay concerns about allergies and drug interactions.
  • Medication errors can also occur when incorrect doses of medicine are administered to patients. By storing medications in their diluted form rather than in potentially lethal full-strength forms, hospital emergency rooms can prevent overdose.
  • Operating on the wrong site of a patient’s body is a surprisingly common error which can be avoided by making sure that the area needing surgery is clearly marked. Left/right mistakes occur most frequently, making up 44% of “wrong site” surgeries
  • In addition to “wrong-site” surgeries, mistakes also happen when surgery is performed on the wrong person. This can easily be avoided by asking for the patient’s name, social security number and date of birth before surgery. If your hospital doesn’t have this protocol in place, you should request that you meet with the surgeon, nurse, and anesthetist before your surgery to reconfirm the site and side of the operation.
  • Technologically advanced systems, such as scanning bar codes on lab specimens, can reduce or eliminate mix-ups; thereby preventing incorrect diagnosis and treatment.|
  • Mistakes increase when physicians are tired and under stress. Steps can be taken to regulate the number of hours medical residents work and ensure that there are enough physicians available to work a given shift in a hospital.

Patients

  • Patients should ask their doctor the following five questions about their medications:
    • What is the name of my medication?
    • What is it used for?
    • How will this drug interact with other medications I am taking?
    • Should I expect any side effects? And what should I do if I experience a side effect?
    • What should I do if I miss a dose either in the hospital or at home?
  • Patients can be more involved in the process to prevent medical errors. You can help by requesting a copy of your records, making sure that when a technician draws blood from you, he or she labels the blood tubes before drawing blood, telling your doctor what medicines you are taking; telling your doctor if you have allergies asking your doctor to write your prescription legibly and requesting copies of all of your test results.

Sources:

  • NewsHour with Jim Leher Transcript – discussion on Medical Errors, 02/07/05
  • NewsHour with Jim Leher Transcript – discussion on Deadly Medicine, 11/30/99
  • Safety.com: Ten Ways Patients Can Help Their Doctors Avoid Medical Mistakes
  • American Society of Health-System Pharmacists: Patients Can Ask Five Simple Questions to Help Avoid Medication Errors
  • Center for Medical consumers – Hospital Patient Safety Campaign to Save 100,000 Lives
  • The Health Foundation Briefing – June 2006 – Patient Safety
  • Journal American Medical Association, July 26, 2000 and Rob Walters, WebMD

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