Reduce Your Risk of Medical Errors That Even the Best Doctors Can Make

photo of male patient in hospital bed speaking with doctorWe literally put our lives in the hands of doctors. We trust them to do their jobs well – to heal us and protect us from harm. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. In fact, medical errors are the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States. Do you know what you should do to reduce your risk of medical errors that even the best doctors can make? Follow the suggestions below and you’ll likely improve the quality of the healthcare you receive as well.

Doctors are humans. Humans make mistakes.

No matter what your line of work is, you will make a mistake now and then. Of course, doctors are humans who can make mistakes as well. Mistakes aren’t a big deal when you get the wrong sandwich at the deli. But it’s a big deal when a doctor misdiagnoses you and thereby delays your life-saving treatment.

Unfortunately, in the world of medicine, mistakes can be harmful, even deadly, to patients.

Remain involved in your care to reduce your risk of medical errors.

Given how common errors are, and the real potential for serious harm or death, it is important for you to take steps to reduce your risk of errors. It’s clearly worth your time and effort. Research indicates that many errors can be avoided if patients were more involved in their care, either as individuals or as a group. Another study found that patients less involved in their care were more than twice as likely to experience a medical error in diagnosis or treatment plans.

By learning about mistakes that any doctor can make, you can take steps to minimize your risk. Of course, the list below does not include every potential mistake a doctor or medical professional can make. But, this is a really good place to start your efforts to reduce your risk of medical errors.

8 mistakes doctors make that you should worry about.

Like any other profession, there are good doctors and not-so-good doctors. But even the best doctors can make any of these 8 mistakes:

Misdiagnosing a patient

photo of woman at a microscopeThe Institute of Medicine defines diagnostic error as “the failure to establish an accurate and timely explanation of the patient’s health problem(s) or communicate that explanation to the patient.” Diagnostic errors include making the wrong diagnosis or causing a delay in the proper diagnosis.

Research suggests that 12 million Americans suffer a diagnostic error every year, and up to one-third of these suffer serious permanent harms, including disability or death. Cancer, infections and vascular events (e.g. heart attacks and strokes) account for at least 1/3 of diagnostic errors, and as a group are thought to cause more than 1/2 of the harms from diagnostic errors.

According to an expert on diagnosis excellence, misdiagnoses occur frequently because medicine is incredibly hard. Doctors must cope with uncertainty, complexity and incomplete information.

A few quick tips for reducing your risk of misdiagnosis by: prepare for appointments by writing down your symptoms and questions; ask your doctor why he/she is making a particular diagnosis and what other options he/she considered; and speak up if something doesn’t seem right or if you’re not improving. For more information on how to reduce your risk of diagnostic errors, read my blog posts:

Treating the wrong patient

If your doctor (or other medical staff) doesn’t correctly identify you, you could be harmed. It’s easy for staff to confuse people with similar sounding names, or those with common names. Your health can suffer if you receive the wrong medication or treatment, and you can be exposed to unnecessary risk from unneeded tests. Additionally, your health can deteriorate if you don’t receive your prescribed medication or treatment because staff gave it to the wrong patient. Before every medication, treatment, test or procedure, make sure the staff checks your entire name, date of birth, and barcode on your wristband.

For more information on the dangers of patient misidentification and how to reduce your risk, read my blog post: Hospitals Mixing Up Patients Is Common And Tricky To Fix

Prescribing medications that can cause harm

photo of a pile of pillsYou can get sick if your doctor prescribes a new medication that interacts dangerously with a medication you already take.  To reduce your risk of taking medications that negatively interact, be sure your doctor knows every drug and supplement you are taking and notify your doctors about any allergies.

For more information on reducing your risk of many types of medication errors, read my blog posts:

Failing to maintain hygiene standards

Any doctor’s office or hospital can be a hotbed of germs, no matter how clean it looks! Make sure any doctor (or other health professional) who is touching you washes their hands and/or puts on clean gloves in front of you. If you don’t see your doctor or nurse do this, don’t be afraid to speak up. Wash your hands after you leave a healthcare setting.

For more information on hand hygiene, read my blog post: Why is Hand Washing in Healthcare So Important? What You Need to Do to Stay Safe.

Operating on the wrong site

photo of hands performing surgeryWrong-site surgery, when surgeons operate on the wrong body part, is considered 100% preventable, yet it happens. It’s unclear how often this occurs because these cases are not always reported, but a landmark study estimated that wrong-site surgeries occur in 1 out of every 112,000 procedures. Although it can happen in any type of surgery, the majority of reported cases are related to orthopedic surgeries.

A breakdown in communication is the primary cause of wrong-site surgery. Risk factors include time pressures, emergency procedures, multiple procedures on the same patient by different surgeons and patients’ obesity. The use of checklists might reduce or prevent wrong site surgeries.

To reduce your risk of having surgery on the wrong body part, make sure your doctor knows exactly what procedure he/she is going to perform. And if your doctor doesn’t do it for you, use a marker to label which body part to operate on (and maybe even which one to avoid). Read my blog posts to learn more:

Not coordinating care with a patient’s other doctors 

Poor communication among the doctors treating you can lead to poor care coordination, which can lead to medication errors, lack of necessary follow-up care, diagnostic delays and other safety issues. All your providers should share your health information with each other throughout the care process. They should share information regarding your condition, treatments, medication regimen, and medical history. When coordination falters, your health can suffer.

To reduce your risk, make sure at least one of your healthcare providers is aware of all the doctors you see, along with your conditions, treatments and medications. For more information, read my blog post: Are your Doctors Coordinating your Care?

Over-testing, over-treating

All tests and treatments carry a degree of risk. Sometimes doctors order tests and treatments that are unnecessary, leading to an increase in risk and medical spending. Before any test or treatment, find out why the test is recommended and how you may benefit. Additionally, ask what would happen if you decide to skip the test or treatment. To learn more, read my blog post: The Dangers of Too Many Tests and Treatments for Patients

Leaving surgical instruments and supplies in the patient

Retained surgical bodies (RSB) is the technical term for any foreign bodies left inside the patient after surgery. Although surgical teams work hard to keep track of all of the instruments, sponges and other items used during a surgery, mistakes happen, and staff can leave items inside the patient. It is estimated that this occurs about 1,500 times each year in the US. Usually the patient must undergo a subsequent surgery to remove the RSB.

RSBs often cause pain, frequent infections and a palpable mass/lump. These symptoms can develop immediately after surgery or even months or years later. A radiological test can usually confirm the presence of an RSB.

If you have unexpected post-surgical pain, ask your surgeon if it’s possible that a foreign body might be to blame. Because surgeons can be stubborn, you might have to insist on an x-ray (or another test) to determine if the surgical team left something behind.

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