6 Ways To Protect Yourself Against Medical Errors

Take charge.

According to the CDC, the top 3 causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, and respiratory disease, in that order. However, a group of doctors from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine claim that the third leading cause of death in the country actually falls on medical errors, but it isn't recognized by the CDC. 

The CDC tracks causes of death caused by disease, injury, and morbid conditions, which excludes medical errors by definition. 

In an open letter to CDC Director Thomas Frieden, the doctors state that preventable medical errors, including misdiagnosis, errors in care, and preventable adverse events, result in over 250,000 deaths per year, which is almost double the number of people who die from respiratory disease. The numbers were collected from death certificates, where medical errors can be listed as a cause of death.

Nobody wants to think of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists as being capable of making so many deadly mistakes, because they are highly trained and dedicated to the care of others. Still, they're human. And they are often required to work grueling hours far past the point of being safe, with too many patients.  

It's certainly not advisable to start doubting the skills of your health care workers, but there are some simple steps you can take to reduce the odds of being affected by medical errors.

1. Keep a typed medical history when you visit the doctor, especially the first time.

In order for your doctor to make the most educated decisions about your healthcare, it is incredibly important for them to know your medical history. Theoretically, all of that information should be in your chart, but if you have been treated at multiple facilities, there's a good chance that the records didn't make it back to your primary physician or are buried somewhere in the file and will take some digging to find.

Because it can be hard to remember specifics about your medical history, it may be easiest to keep a running document that includes procedures, vaccinations, and dates of tests (like most recent pap smear or colonoscopy). After an appointment, the document can quickly be edited to keep it current.

At the bare minimum, make sure to have a list of all current medications you're taking and their dosages. This includes any over-the-counter medications and supplements, as there can be potential interactions your doctor needs to be aware of. This can also protect against errors at the pharmacy. Have your doctor spell out the name of any new medications so you know exactly what you're getting.

2. Don't keep secrets from your doctor.

A visit to the doctor will involve potentially uncomfortable questions about sexual activity, consumption of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, diet, and activity level. Because we all know what our answers are "supposed" to be, it can be difficult to admit when we fall short. It's important to be honest. They aren't asking personal questions in order to judge or embarrass you. They're doing it because the answers are directly related to your health.

Patients will sometimes also withhold information about physical ailments like a rash, growth, or pain because they don't think it's a big deal or they are embarrassed by it. In reality, doctors have seen enough and it's almost impossible to gross them out. Even if the problem seems pretty icky, the doctor needs to see it.

Something small like a rash, lump, or pain that doesn't go away after a few days can be a symptom of a larger problem. The sooner it is addressed, the better.

3. Don't be afraid to ask questions so you are fully informed.

When a doctor makes a diagnosis, prescribes a new medication, or recommends a procedure, be sure you understand why. Your time with the doctor is minimal; you're in charge of taking care of yourself the rest of the time. Arm yourself with knowledge so you can do it properly.

What's the risk of doing a procedure versus not doing it?

What are the side effects of that medication?

What happens if you miss a dose?

What is the aftercare of a procedure?

How will it interfere with other conditions you have?

Don't stay silent because you don't want to be a bother; patient education is part of their job.

4. Ask doctors or nurses to wash their hands before touching you.

Doctors and nurses care for a large number of people on a daily basis and are exposed to whatever germs their patients are harboring. This can lead to the inadvertent spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA. 

Medical professionals try to minimize the spread of germs by using hand sanitizer before and after treating patients, even when gloves are used. After all, it's faster and easier on their hands. As good as hand sanitizer is, actually washing hands is better at getting rid of those germs.

When the doctor or nurse enter the room, kindly ask them to wash their hands before they touch you, even before shaking your hand.

5. Seek a second opinion when necessary.

Actually, Dr. Spaceman, it really is.
Actually, Dr. Spaceman, it really is. gph.is

Doctors make recommendations based on what they've experienced during their careers. This means that different doctors might want to take different approaches to treating a disease. When facing a difficult diagnosis, there's nothing wrong with seeing another specialist in order to verify the problem and get another opinion about the options.

Some doctors prefer older techniques, even if there are newer treatments that are more efficient and less invasive. Conversely, some doctors might advocate a new procedure, even if it's needlessly riskier than a tried-and-true method. 

Even if there is no reason to doubt your doctor's judgement, getting a second opinion is still a good idea before a major surgery or treatment. 

6. Make sure you are taking all medications correctly.

Medications were formulated and approved to be taken at a particular dose at particular time intervals. Deviating from those instructions can potentially weaken their effects or even cause harmful side effects. 

Getting the dosage right is key. While swallowing a tablet is fairly simple , liquid medication can be trickier. A tablespoon from the kitchen might not be a true measurement, making it essential to use an oral syringe or a measuring cup meant for liquid medication. Many pharmacies provide items these at no charge. 

If you're being treated in a hospital, double check with your nurse about your medication and dosage before taking it.

Be sure to clarify exactly when to take a medication, how much to take, and if there are any foods that need to be avoided while on it.

Cover image: Shutterstock