It's a scary proposition when the very people dedicated to keeping you well and curing your sickness can do you in.
Yet that's the reality of seemingly simple acts such as going to the doctor, getting a drug from a pharmacy or spending time in a hospital. According to the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., up to 98,000 Americans a year die in hospitals (and thousands more are injured) because of medical mistakes.
The latest mistake to come to public light in 2001 involved a 41-year-old New York man who underwent two operations – one to remove a blood clot from the left side of his brain, and another when doctors discovered the clot was on the right side of his brain (they were subsequently suspended by the Brooklyn hospital where they worked). The mistake? The patient's brain scan had been hung up backwards for viewing in the operating room.
Whether consumers know it or not, medical mistakes are common.
Sometimes, patients are given the wrong medicine or the wrong dose. Doctors operate on the wrong body part. Health problems are missed or misdiagnosed. Sometimes, miscommunication, bad information and sheer neglect play a role. A shortage of nurses or other health-care professionals adds to the fray.
Hospitals have cut back on staff, such as licensed practical nurses and nurses aides,'' says Mike Donio, spokesman for The People's Medical Society, a patient consumer group in Allentown, PA. "Maybe there's only one pharmacy technician on duty when there used to be three. It sounds so mundane, but communication is one of the most important things. You've got to make sure that you and your physician and/or practitioners are all on the same page when you're going to have any kind of treatment, be it medical or surgical.''
It also pays to take charge of your own health, and here are a few practical things you can do to lessen the chance that you're one of those bad-scenario statistics or news headlines.
· Get to know your doctor well. Many people today have to choose their family physician or specialist off an insurance company list, but it's a critical choice. Interview several doctors, if necessary, to find one whose philosophies, office practices and personality you like. Ask friends for references. Contact local and national medical societies to check a doctor's credentials. The Center for the Study of Services lists the nation's top doctors at www.guidetotopdoctors.org. Public Citizen Health Research Group also publishes a list of questionable doctors at http://www.citizen.org/HRG/QDSITE/QDHOMEPAGE/QDHOMEPAGE/qdhome.html.
· Be drug savvy. Mistakes with over-the-counter and prescription drugs are common reasons for life-threatening and potentially disabling side effects. Keep a list in writing of every drug you're taking, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, herbal supplements, vitamins and minerals. Let all your doctors know what you're taking, even if it was prescribed by someone else. In the hospital, ask the same questions you would at the pharmacy counter window about doses, timing, side effects, benefits and disadvantages.
· Don't take chances with surgery. Make sure everyone on your medical team and everyone in the operating room knows exactly what kind of surgery you're having and where. Before they give you anesthesia, ask them to repeat the surgery they intend to perform to make sure it's correct. If necessary, use a pen or Magic Marker to draw a circle around the body part that's going to be operated on. "It may sound goofy, but if someone only writes 'knee surgery' on your chart, at least they'll know which one when they pull back the gown and find your arrow saying, 'this knee,' " Donio says.
· Ask lots of questions of your doctor. Why this treatment or procedure? What can I expect from it? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages and side effects? How many times you have done this particular operation or procedure? What are you results with this specific technique?
· Get a second opinion. For major surgery or invasive procedures, always get a second opinion, if possible. If necessary and within your budget, get several opinions.
· Find a hospital buddy. If you must spend time in a hospital, take a friend or family member with you. Let the hospital staff, including, doctors, nurses, technicians, orderlies, etc., know that your self-appointed advocate will be involved in your care and decisions. Let this third-party advocate know it's his/her job to keep a watchful eye over everything that happens or is done to you.
· Read the fine print. It's not as exciting as a Tom Clancy novel, but your insurance plan provides valuable information. Read your booklet cover to cover. Know what's paid for and what you're responsible for, including doctor's visits, emergency room care, mental health benefits, drugs, tests, ambulance service and checkups.
· Be honest. Many families are ashamed or embarrassed of their medical or family past, especially if certain diseases or problems exist (depression, mental illness, abuse, sexual problems, heart disease, diabetes). The more information you share with your medical team, the better it is for you.