As many as 440,000 Americans die each year from preventable medical mistakes.* You did not read that wrong. This is an astounding number. Ask yourself “why?” If six commercial jets crashed every single day and killed all the passengers onboard, there would still be more people killed by medical errors each year. Don’t we think that this comparison would get everyone’s attention real fast?
This is why it has been suggested that you are safer on a highway filled with drunk drivers than in a Florida hospital. Statistically, many fewer people are injured and killed by the drunk drivers than by preventable medical mistakes.
Yet because most people go to a hospital with some illness or injury, medical mistakes are often missed, covered up or buried (along with the unfortunate patients who are victimized). Medical malpractice cases have been demonized by the medical-insurance complex. In reality, only a small fraction of all medical mistakes end up in a malpractice case.
Here are a few tips to help avoid becoming one of the statistics during a hospital visit, when many of the catastrophic medical mistakes take place.
- Medication mistakes occur in about half of all hospitalizations. Many are minor, but some are not. Ask the nurse, doctor or health care provider what the medication being given is for, whether it interacts with any other medications you are taking (and tell them what those are), and whether it will cause any allergic reaction, especially if you have had allergic reactions to medication in the past. Bring your current medications or have photos on your phone with you to show. Always look at what you are taking and ask questions. I have represented many patients who have received the wrong medications, none worse than the woman who was given two narcotics that should never be given together, which left her in an irreversible coma. These are errors that should never occur.
- Provide a complete medical history so that the hospital will have a full record. Your caregivers need to know all medications, past medical conditions, symptoms and surgeries. This is particularly important if you are being treated for a chronic condition such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma or the like. You may want to remind each provider of your medical history when you talk to them.
- Wrong site surgery still takes place. Preventing it is simple but, incredibly, many hospitals and doctors simply do not take the time. You should be asked repeatedly to tell the nurses and doctor what you are there for, what part of your body, and point to the place where you understand the surgery will take place. The doctor should put his or her initials at the site and, if a limb, write “NO” on the non-surgical appendage. Despite having a “sign your site” policy for many years, I litigated a case on behalf of a patient whose orthopedic surgeon operated on the wrong leg. Most disturbing was the fact that a year earlier he had operated on the wrong leg of another patient.
- Infections are a leading cause of illness and death in hospitals. Hospitals are awash with all types of virulent bacteria that can cause infections that are sometimes antibiotic resistant. Request that anyone who comes in contact with you wash their hands first and use a fresh pair of gloves.
- Find out if the hospital and surgeon have lots of experience performing the procedure or surgery you are there for. Hospitals with the most experience have better outcomes and are better equipped to deal with the consequences. Recent news highlighted hospitals performing dangerous and complicated procedures when they have little or no track records, with disastrous results. CNN has revealed an example of this problem right here in South Florida at St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach: http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/01/health/st-marys-medical-center/index.html.
- Look at your own medical record for errors. Sometimes incorrect information may be charted about a patient. It may be about another patient or may just be an error. There may be mistakes made about medications, medical history or allergies. In this day and age of electronic charting, many of which use dropdown lists to make charting quicker, once an error is entered it may follow you throughout your admission and even in later admissions.
- Get a second opinion. If you have been recommended for surgery or a procedure, or have been diagnosed with a serious condition, have another physician look at you and your records. Sometimes there may be another approach or just a difference of opinion. Having another set of trained eyes on you and your results is always beneficial.
- Avoid hospitalizations in July and August. That is when new residents take over. These are the brand new fresh-from-the-factory doctors who often have the day-to-day responsibility for your care (and your life). It’s always better to have someone with at least some experience. These residents learn from mistakes (haven’t you watched Grey’s Anatomy?). Don’t be part of their learning curve. Likewise avoid surgeries on Fridays since you will have less access to attending physicians and the first team staff on weekends.
- Have an advocate in the hospital with you. Whether it’s a family member or friend, you need someone to act as your eyes and ears as a patient advocate, ask questions and look over what’s happening. Someone to get the nurse for you, or call the doctor. Sign a health care proxy so if you can’t make decisions for yourself someone has been empowered to do so.
10. Know who your doctors are and talk to them about your care. Ask questions. Tell them when something hurts or does not seem right. Don’t be afraid to call them. It is important to know who is on your team and what role they play. Sometimes in hospitals there is a lack of coordination of care….one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. Make sure you have someone quarterbacking your team.
Hopefully you will never need to be a in a hospital. The statistics say that there are 136 million emergency room visits a year and 35 million admissions, with 51 million procedures performed. Given that, the chances are good that many of us will need to keep these tips in mind to avoid being a statistic.
*Journal of Patient Safety, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2013).
John Elliott Leighton, of Leighton Law, P.A., is a board certified personal injury trial lawyer with offices in Miami and Orlando. He is the author of “Why You Are Safer On The Highways Than In A Hospital” and has lectured and taught extensively on medical malpractice issues including at the Medical Trial Skills College for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. (888) 395-0001 www.Leightonlaw.com.
South Florida Legal Guide Midyear 2015 Edition