Medical Errors

As patients we expect the best care possible. Unfortunately, medical errors do happen. They are preventable adverse effects of care.

In fact, medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer respectively. Medical errors surpass strokes, Alzheimer’s, automobile accidents, and the flu.

In a research study at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the study authors Dr. Martin Makary and Dr. Michael Daniel calculated that 251,454 Americans per year die from medical errors in hospitals. These errors include preventable infections, medication errors, misdiagnoses, questionable behavior, injury, leaving equipment in a surgical patient, and poor communication.

The numbers are alarming but even more so because the study relied on medical documentation from inpatient stays; it does not include errors that are excluded from medical records, outpatient settings, or the patient perspective.

Adding to the problem is that death certificates are not required to record medical errors. Death certificates rely on assigning International Classification of Diseases (ICD) codes to the cause of death. Human errors and system errors are not assigned an ICD code, and therefore are not recorded on death certificates.

Accurate numbers in terms of medical errors and its ranking on the leading causes of death could be even higher unless the system changes.

A preventable problem is a fixable problem. By requiring more accountability and transparency, we can– and should– create a safer healthcare system and take steps to fix the problem and change protocol to ensure safety. Sweeping the problem under the rug, omitting errors from records, and failing to fully investigate the role of errors in deaths will lead to even more deaths.

Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors

  • Tell your doctor of all medications and supplements that you are taking.

  • Inform your doctors and nurses of any allergic or adverse reactions you have had.

  • Ask every medical professional who comes in contact with you to wash their hands for at least 45 to 60 seconds. Alcohol based hand sanitizers are not enough to prevent the spread of infection.

  • Make sure you understand discharge instructions and after-care treatment plans. Do not hesitate to ask questions.

  • If you are having surgery ask whether a resident or device maker representative will be present during your surgery, what their roles are, and whether the surgeon will be the one actually performing the surgery. As a patient, you have the right to know this information.

  • Ask if concurrent surgeries are scheduled during your surgery. Concurrent surgeries with the same surgeon is perfectly legal and not uncommon.

  • Ask how many surgeries the surgeon has performed for your particular surgery.

  • Speak up with any questions or concerns. You should be satisfied with the answers before you agree to a surgery or procedure.

  • Ask a family member, friend, or patient advocate to accompany you to your appointments and consultations. You may not remember what was said at the appointment and your companion may think of questions to ask that you may not.

  • Keep records.

  • Ask if a test or procedure is absolutely necessary and why it is being recommended. Unnecessary tests, procedures, and surgeries can– and do– happen.

  • It is always a good idea to get a second opinion.