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Reducing Medical Errors

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##### About the Author

Nancy Levenson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. Her work has been published online at and and in magazines such as Cottage Living and Northwest Homes and Gardens. She is also a contributor to theBest Places guidebooks.

Movie star Dennis Quaid's newborn twins were the subjects of an overwhelming amount of press in 2007, and it wasn't just because the Quaids added two more tikes to the Hollywood baby boom. The family experienced near-tragedy when the babies were administered an incorrect medication at the hospital. While the Quaid kids recovered, others before them weren't so lucky. The exact same medicine mix-up had been fatal on several previous occasions.

Sadly, this story isn't uncommon. In the Journal for American Medicine, Dr. Barbara Starfield of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health reported that medical errors cause 250,000 deaths per year. That makes medical errors the third-largest cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease and cancer.

The reasons for medical mistakes are many, including:

  • Over-tired doctors and nurses
  • Lack of time for medical professionals to stay up-to-date on every condition
  • Poor dosage instructions for medications
  • Failure of patients to report symptoms
  • Incorrect medications or dosages dispensed by pharmacies or hospitals
  • Poor or non-existent communication between multiple medical providers

Many of these problems are systemic: others are simply caused by imperfect humans (both patients and medical or pharmaceutical staff). Of course, human errors cannot be eradicated completely, but as patients, there are steps we can take to reduce them. It’s all about becoming an active member of your own health care team.

Instead of just “going along” with what medical professionals are recommending, make sure you understand all the treatments and procedures. Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to check and double-check the details. Here are some specific suggestions to keep you safe in the hands of doctors, pharmacies, and hospitals.

  • **Keep an updated list of medications you take.** It's important to report everything you're taking to your doctors, including prescriptions, over-the-counter meds, and dietary supplements. A [Personal Health Record]( is a great way to keep track of them all.
  • **When you get a prescription, don't assume it's correct.** Know the name of the drug you were prescribed, what it's for, and what other medications it interacts with. Read the label. Is it the right drug? Is it safe to take with your other meds? Read the warnings on the bottle, and read the printed sheet with side effects and instructions that generally comes with prescriptions. If you have any doubts or questions, contact your doctor before you take it.
  • **Choose an advocate for yourself.** If you're uncomfortable speaking to your own health care providers, make sure a friend or family member is there to ask the right questions. This is especially crucial when dealing with a serious diagnosis--your emotions can get in the way of your comprehension.
  • **Report any and all symptoms.** Doctors need all the information they can get to properly diagnose you. Even if a symptom is embarrassing or seemingly minor, you're best off reporting it.
  • **Confirm the obvious.** In extreme (albeit, rare) cases, surgeries have been done on the wrong body part (the right elbow instead of the left, for example). If you're heading into surgery, make sure everyone is aware of what's being operated on.
  • **Get a second opinion.** Not all treatments are necessary, and some might be harmful. There's a chance you might be better off without a specific treatment, so be sure to educate yourself to all the options available to you. A good care provider should fully support your decision to get a second--or even a third--opinion.

To learn more about the issue of patient safety, visit the National Patient Safety Foundation. Or visit the Quaid Foundation website.

Reprinted with permission from

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