5 Common Medical Mistakes, and How You Can Avoid Being a Medical Mistake Victim

According to the CDC, the 3 leading causes of death in the US are heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases.  However, a recent study by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine suggests that there is another culprit, not tracked by the CDC, which surpasses respiratory disease and ranks as the actual 3rd leading cause of death in the US.  Not only does it account for more than 250,000 American deaths each year, roughly the equivalent of 2 Boeing 747 airplanes crashing each and every day and killing every passenger on board!  This cause of death is almost entirely preventable!!!!

Medical mistakes are now recognized as the 3rd leading cause of death in the US.  They come in many forms and in all fields of medicine.  They occur because of human or institutional error and are completely avoidable.  Each year, over 4,000 preventable mistakes occur in surgery.  Researchers often refer to these errors as “never events” because they are the kinds of mistakes that should never occur.  They include careless blunders such as leaving a medical tool (such as a sponge) inside a patient’s body, performing the wrong procedure, performing surgery on the wrong body part or the wrong person, or a pharmacy providing the wrong prescription to a patient.  It is horrifying to consider that surgeons make these kinds of mistakes at all, but the numbers are even more appalling.

The most recent Johns Hopkins study estimates that each week, surgeons will leave a foreign object inside a patient’s body 39 times, perform the wrong procedure 20 times, and operate on the wrong body part 20 times!  Other studies have placed the number of American deaths even higher, at 440,000 annually (Journal of Patient Safety, 2013).

Some of these are simply careless mistakes, and some are the results of deeper institutional problems.  Thousands of doctors are on medical probation, some of whom practice under the influence of alcohol or other substances.  It has been estimated that more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, technicians, and other health professionals struggle with drug abuse or addiction.  These preventable mistakes are happening with astounding frequency and these numbers do not even reflect the millions of injuries, only American deaths!  If this was a war and the body count was anywhere close to this, would we stand by quietly?

Patients can be a catalyst for change by simply knowing what to look for.  Below are the 5 most common medical errors, and tips on how to best avoid them.  After all, a patient should never leave the hospital feeling worse than when they arrived.

1.     Medication Mistakes:  Don’t assume the hospital has it right

A lack of communication among departments, or doctors and nurses changing shifts, can result in missed medication or improper administration.  In some situations, patients received drugs known to cause dangerous reactions.  Instead of blindly following doctors’ orders, review your records to be sure that the hospital has your correct and most recent medical history.  Bring your prescription bottles to the hospital with you (or take photos of the labels) to eliminate questions about what you are taking.  As the doctor or nurse about interactions with other drugs you are taking, and check online yourself!  (Click here to check for drug interactions)

2.     Infections:  Hand sanitizer is your friend

Each year, 1.7 million people acquire infections from the hospital that are unrelated to the reason for their original visit.  These range from pneumonia to urinary tract infections to septic shock.  This problem has a straightforward solution:  Wash your hands often, ask your doctors and nurses to wash their hands often, and ask the housekeeping department to sanitize frequently touched areas in your hospital room if you are staying there for a few days.  (Hospital rooms are usually washed between patients, but haphazardly overlooked if the same patient is in the room for a few days.)

3.       Never Events:  Ask questions; be that “difficult patient” who wants to be informed

Before being administered anesthesia, take time to meet with the entire team that will be operating.  Point out (don’s just say aloud), which part of your body should receive treatment, and have your surgeon initial that spot.  Remind your doctor to use a checklist to count equipment before and after the operation.  Ask them exactly what they will be doing and who will be doing it (it is not unusual for the doctor you meet with to be different from the one you treats you while in surgery.  This is sometimes known as “ghost surgery”).

4.         Misdiagnosis:  Two heads are better than one

Mistakes in diagnoses are the most common type of medical error.  Since the wrong diagnosis can delay treatment you may need, or even introduce medication that exacerbates your problem, determining your true condition is key.  Sometimes, a second set of eyes and ears is all that is needed.  Before moving forward with treatment, visit a different doctor to get another opinion.  If they agree, you can move forward with more confidence.  If not, go back and get additional opinions.

5.        Unnecessary tests or treatment:  Find out the purpose

Each year, $700 billion is spent on tests and treatments that are unnecessary.  Your wallet is not the only thing at risk!  CT Scans and MRIs can cause kidney failures, x-rays expose you to radiation, and even simply drawing blood can increase your risk of an infection.  In order to protect yourself, ask your doctor why a procedure is necessary and if there are any other options.

Unfortunately, there are many ways to be injured or killed through medical treatment.  Most health care providers are competent and skilled.  In fact, only 2% of doctors nationwide have been responsible for 50% of total malpractice payouts.  For those who make mistakes, the results of their mistakes can be catastrophic.  Ironically, while medical mistakes have grown to the third leading cause of death in the US, medical malpractice cases are at historic lows because of legislatively created statutes inhibiting victims’ rights as well as an astoundingly low rate of physicians maintaining liability insurance.  So while medical carnage continues, those wreaking havoc fail to provide the financial responsibility necessary to help compensate their victims.  This makes it all the more essential to take control over your medical care and prevent errors from happening in the first place.