Patient Safety: You Play an Important Role
Research shows that the best way to protect yourself against medical errors
is to be actively involved in your health care. You should take part on some
level in every treatment decision. That's why experts recommend that patients
consider themselves to be a member of their own health care team.
Here are some of the things you can ask for, say and do to give yourself the
best chances of ensuring that your medical care will go well.
--Avoid Mistakes with Your Medications
There are many ways that mistakes related to medication can occur. Follow these
tips to avoid those errors:
- Make sure your doctor knows about any drug you take, including prescription
medicine, over-the-counter medicine, herbs and supplements. It's a good idea
to take all of these to your doctor at least once a year.
- If you've ever had an allergic reaction to any drugs, be sure to tell your
- When your doctor gives you a prescription, make sure you can read it. If
you can't, the pharmacist may not be able to either.
- Whenever your doctor prescribes a medication, ask the following questions:
--What is the purpose of taking this medication?
--How should I take it, and for how long?
--What are the possible side effects, and what should I do if I have them?
--Is this medicine safe to take with everything else I'm taking?
--What foods or liquids should I avoid when I'm taking this medicine?
- When you pick up medicine at the pharmacy, ask the following questions:
--Is this the medicine my doctor prescribed? (This may sound obvious, but studies
have shown that nearly 90 percent of medicine errors are caused when a patient
gets the wrong drug or takes the wrong dose.)
--Read the directions on the label before you leave the pharmacy, and ask for
help if there's anything you don't understand
--Ask the pharmacist for advice about the best way to measure liquid medications
--Safety when you have Tests and Treatments
It's important to get the tests you need, but it's also important that you
don't get a test unless you really need it.
- Ask why you're having a test, and if you've had the same one or a similar
one, be sure to let your doctor know in advance. If a test can be avoided, it
- After the test, don't assume that no news is good news. Call and ask
for the results if you don't hear about them.
- Ask your doctor if your treatment is based on the most recent guidelines.
--Safety at the Hospital
While you're at the hospital, don't forget that you're still a member of your
own care team. There are lots of things you can do to help make sure your stay
- Tell your primary care doctor that you're in the hospital
- Follow recommendations about medications, (in the medication section,
- If you have a procedure, ask
--Why am I having this procedure?
--How long will it take?
--If you've had the procedure before and had any problems with it, let the staff
know about this.
--Ask for the results of the procedure
- Whenever someone from the hospital staff has direct contact with you,
it's acceptable to ask whether they've washed their hands.
- When you need to call a nurse for help, don't wait until the last minute.
The nurse may not be able to come instantly.
- Ask whether it's okay to get out of bed by yourself.
- Make sure you know who all the people are that are caring for you and
what their roles are.
-- If You're having Surgery
One thing that people think about when they hear of mistakes during surgery
is a surgeon operating on the left knee, for example, when it was the right
knee that needed the operation. These types of mistakes are actually extremely
rare. Hospitals have procedures in place to avoid exactly those types of errors.
Still, it's important to talk with your surgeon so that you understand exactly
what's going to be done during the procedure. Review the purpose of the operation,
the way it will be performed, how long it will take, and what to expect when
you are recovering.
-- A Safe Transition from Hospital to Home
When you go home after a hospital stay, you want to be sure that nothing falls
through the cracks during this transition.
- Ask for very specific instructions when you're discharged from the hospital.
These should include:
--When you can get back to your regular activities, such as driving, exercising,
bathing and household chores.
- Ask for a list of medications you should be taking. Be sure to follow
the recommendations in the medication section above.
- If there are medications from different doctors, make sure that one person-a
doctor or pharmacist-looks at them to see whether they can all be taken safely
- Make sure your primary care doctors knows about the medications you were
prescribed at the hospital
- Ask whether you need to make follow-up appointments, and what the best
way is to do that.
In general, when it comes to your medical care, keep yourself informed as much
as you can. Ask your healthcare team for good books or Web sites where you can
learn in-depth about any conditions you have. You can never learn too much about
Make no assumptions either. Never assume that one doctor probably knows this
or that about your care. Always speak up if anything comes to your mind. And
try to involve a friend or family member in your care. There may be a time when
you'll need another pair of eyes and ears for instructions and other important
Listen to your instincts as well. If something seems a little bit odd, suspicious,
or doesn't make sense, ask about it. There's no harm in asking, and it might
end up being extremely helpful.
One of the reasons why it's so important for you to remain alert and in tune
with what's happening to you is that you alone are the common denominator in
all of the different medical care scenarios you encounter. From doctor's office
to pharmacy to hospital to clinic, you're the one that's always there. Continuity
of care is important, and no one is present in your care more continuously than
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; American Academy of Family Physicians; The Institute of Medicine; Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations; The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health; The National Patient Safety Foundation