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    by Ngozi Osuagwu, MD | May 15th, 2016


    In the past few weeks, news has come out that the third leading cause of death in the U.S. is ‘medical errors’. It comes after heart disease which is number one and cancer which is number two.  It is estimated that more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical mistakes. When I first heard this on National Public Radio (NPR), I was in shock. Medical errors kill more people than lung disease, suicides, firearms or even motor vehicle accidents. One in 4 patients will have some form of medical error during their hospitalization, not necessarily leading to death. Although the article focused on errors in the hospitals, it can also occur in the doctors’ offices. Also, this is not limited to the U.S., it happens all around the world.

    According to the article that was released in The BMJ, the most common reason for the errors is due to miscommunication. The example given is during the time of hand-off. Hand-off is when one team of health care providers signs out to another team about the condition of a patient. This can happen when a patient is being transferred from the Emergency Room to the floor or it can happen during shift change. Sometimes the full information about the patient does not get to the new team.

    I do not share this news to scare you from going to the hospital. If you need to go to the hospital, you need to go to the hospital, but I think it is important to be aware. We talk a lot about how to reduce heart disease and we talk about ways to decrease our risk of cancer. I think is important to discuss ways to reduce our risk of medical errors. According to the author, Dr. Martin Makary,  people are dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they were seeking care and something needs to be done. He believes that part of the solution is transparency – having the information recorded so that everyone can learn from the experience.  He wants more money invested in research to keep patients safe. He admits that this will not eliminate all errors because we are human.

    What can we do now? WE HAVE TO BE ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS IN OUR HEALTH CARE. Will this stop all errors? No, but it can minimize the errors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a fact sheet titled, 20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors: Patient Fact Sheet (download PDF). Please take your time to review the information.

    Regarding what you can do when you are in the hospital:

    1. Know your medical history. For example, if you are allergic to anything, every time someone comes into the room to give you a medicine, remind them of your allergy
    2. Know your team of health care providers – have a note book and write down the names of those people that enter your room. Ask about your care plan. When you have new team, make sure that they are on the same plan, if not ask why the plan was changed.
    3. If you are having surgery, make sure that the health care team review your procedure. It should be what is on the consent that you signed.
    4. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS – You need to have a clear understanding of what you need to do while you are in the hospital and when you are discharged home. It is very important to know what to do when you get home. You want to understand how to take your medication. You want to know when to follow up with the doctor.
    5. If possible have a patient advocate with you – A patient advocate is that loved one that is with you or it can be you with the loved one in the hospital. It is helpful to have another person in the hospital room. Instead of two ears hearing the information, we have four ears. That advocate can make sure that you are getting what you need.

    As a health care provider, I can speak for the majority – we truly want the best, but we are human.  To say that we have a perfect system would not be telling the truth. As a team – patient s and the health care providers, I believe we can do a lot together to reduce the errors. I hope one day it will drop to the bottom of the list as a cause of harm.

    Please share this information and I welcome your comments.


    1. Ernestine Jackson says:

      Wow! Scary but real. We all know an instance when we or someone we know got bad medical advice or treatment. Nevertheless, it is important to me to trust my medical advisers and my common sense. I think it is also important to involve a family member or friend in being aware of, and listening to, medical advice.

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