Last fall the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published an alarming report. "To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System" revealed that 44,000 to 98,000 Americans die each year as the result of preventable medical errors. Using the IOM's more conservative figure of 44,000 deaths demonstrates the severity of this finding: medical errors rank as the eighth leading cause of death killing more Americans than motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS. The report emphasized that many of these errors are system failures, not just human errors, and they are therefore capable of being corrected.
Take charge of your health care. The U.S. government's Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) recommends that patients do the following to reduce their risk of becoming the victim of medical mistakes:
- Be an active member of your health care team: This is THE biggest predictor of getting the best health care results. Ask questions. Take part in every decision about your health care.
- Make sure your doctor knows every prescription, over-the-counter medication, and dietary supplements, such as vitamins and herbs, you are taking.
- Make sure your doctor knows about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medicines.
- When your doctor writes you a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can't read it, your pharmacist probably can't either.
- Ask questions of your doctor and pharmacist about your prescription. What is it for? How am I supposed to take it and for how long? What side effects are likely? What do I do if they occur? If this medicine safe to take with other medicines or dietary supplements I am taking? What food, drink, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?
- When you pick up your prescription, verify that it is the correct drug prescribed. A study the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences found that 88 percent of medicine errors involved the wrong drug or wrong dose.
- Clarify your understanding of the dosage instructions with the pharmacist. For example, does four doses daily mean taking a dose every 6 hours round the clock, or just during regular waking hours?
- Ask for instructions on measuring liquid medicines. A household teaspoon may not accurately measure a liquid teaspoon; a syringe or other device will probably provide more accuracy.
- Ask the pharmacist for written side effects your medicine may cause.
- If you are having a procedure or surgery done at a hospital, choose a hospital with a lot of experience with your condition.
- Consider asking all health care workers who have direct contact with you in a hospital whether they have washed their hands.
- When you are being discharged from a hospital ask your doctor to explain about the medications you will be taking, and the activities you may safely engage in, at home.
- If you are having surgery, make sure that you, your doctor, and your surgeon agree on exactly what and where the surgery will be performed. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons urges its members to sign their initials directly on the site to be operated on before the surgery, for example on the left knee.
- If you have questions or concerns, speak up.
- Make sure that one person, such as your personal doctor, is in charge of your care. This is especially important if you have many health problems, or are in a hospital.
- Make sure that all health professionals involved in your care have important health information about you.
- Ask a family member or friend to be there with you and to be your advocate: pick someone who will help get things done for you and speak up for you when you can't.
- Know that "more" is not always better. Find out why a test or treatment is needed and how it can help you.
- Ask about the results of all tests. Don't assume that no news is good news.
- Learn about your condition and treatments by asking your doctor and nurse and by using other reliable sources. Treatment recommendations based on the latest scientific evidence are available from the National Guidelines Clearinghouse.
This information provided by the Group Insurance Commission.