While there are no guarantees your physician will never make a life-threatening error while treating you, the more you do to reduce your risk, the safer you will be. As a result, it is important you learn everything you can about your health conditions and any procedures which could be involved in treating them.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Medical Errors
Ask Questions About the Medications You are Prescribed: You do not want to be given the wrong medication or the wrong dosage, so double-check your prescription every time you fill it. Ask questions about any change. Does it look or taste differently? Has the pill size or color changed? It is possible you were given the wrong dosage. In addition, any time you visit a doctor take a list of your current medications with you, so your doctor will know what you are already taking. Repeat this process every time you go. You cannot assume your doctor will remember what you are taking, nor can you assume everything written in your record is 100% correct.
Do Not Ask For Unneeded Antibiotics: Antibiotics are only useful against bacteria, not the viruses which cause colds and the flu. Do not press your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic if you do not absolutely need it. You want to make sure antibiotics will work for you when they are really necessary.
Stay in the Hospital a Reasonable Length of Time: Researchers have discovered that people who stay in the hospital either too long or too short a time are more likely to become ill again. Do not rush your doctor to send you home and do not beg to stay longer than necessary. If you are going to be transferred to a rehab facility, such as after hip replacement surgery, you may need to stay in the hospital for at least three nights before Medicare will pay for the rehabilitation. Discuss this with hospital staff so your stay in the hospital is the optimal length of time, both for your health and your wallet.
Mark the Spot Before a Surgery: The last thing either you or your doctor wants to happen is for you to have surgery in the wrong place or on the wrong organ. Before you are given anesthesia, you or your doctor should mark the exact spot where they will be operating. Try to confirm what is happening with the surgical assistants as often as possible while you are still conscious. In well-run facilities, the nurses and other staff will often repeat to you several times the location and type of procedure they will be performing. Do not get impatient with this repetition. It is for your protection.
Pay Attention to How You Feel After the Surgery: Of course it is normal to feel weak, tired and have some pain after surgery. You may also be groggy from the anesthesia. However, if the pain is severe, there is unusual swelling, you have a high fever, nausea or bowel problems, let your doctor know. You could have an infection and it is even possible the surgeon left a sponge or instrument in your body. That might seem impossible, but it does happen more often than you realize!
Be a Responsible Patient: Follow your doctor's instructions. Schedule tests, take your medications, get rest, go to physical therapy, get back on your feet and walk when asked, and carefully follow the medical advice your physician recommends. By doing your part, your outcome is likely to be better.
Be an Educated Patient: Choose a physician and, when possible, a hospital which has the best possible record for treating your condition. Learn everything you can about your illness or injury and the different types of treatment. Use reliable sites such as WebMd, MayoClinic.org, or the official organization for your disease to learn everything you can. After learning all you can online, follow-up with any specific questions you have by talking to your doctor. If your physician contradicts what you have read, do not be afraid to ask why. Be sure you get your questions answered and, if you still have concerns, get a second opinion.
Ask for Help: If you are receiving treatment from a specialist, be sure to keep your primary care doctor in the loop. They will know about your other medical conditions and can help coordinate your care. For example, when my husband had a heart attack, the hospital and surgeon had to take special precautions because of my husband's kidney disease. The heart surgeon discussed my husband's treatment with his nephrologist (kidney doctor) before the surgery. This was very reassuring to us. The more different health issues you have, the more you will need the help of a primary care doctor to coordinate your care.
In addition, ask a family member or a friend to be nearby when you have surgery and to keep track of what is going on during a hospital stay. If you are under anesthesia, in a medically induced coma, or sleeping continually, you will be much safer if there is someone else who can speak to the doctors and make sure their instructions are being carried out by the hospital staff.
While it may be impossible for patients to avoid all the possible causes of medical errors, it is their responsibility to make sure they do not contribute to any mistakes.
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