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Promoting Patient Safety: Your Responsibilities and Your Rights

separator As a healthcare consumer, you have a right to safe, effective, quality healthcare. Nobody would argue with that. Day in and day out, that’s what the vast majority of people get—high quality healthcare.

But if you read the papers or watch the news, it’s hard to avoid hearing the occasional story of healthcare gone wrong. A tragic mistake, then heartache for a patient and entire family. A medication error, an infection, an incorrect note in a chart. These mistakes can make going to the doctor, going to the hospital, even buying medicine, a bit nerve wracking.

The medical community has been responding to these problems in a number of ways. Individual hospitals have set up new quality procedures designed to eliminate the possibility of human error as much as possible. And national organizations have been created to address the issue even further.

Organizations like The Institute for Healthcare Improvement, The National Council on Patient Information and Education and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and others have all been created to improve healthcare quality and safety. These organizations are working to have an impact on the quality of care in all kinds of situations, from making sure patients don’t have to wait too long for appointments to developing systems that decrease error rates to ensuring that physicians use the latest guidelines as soon as those guidelines are developed.

It’s great to know that the medical community is taking action. But as healthcare consumers, we all have things we can do ourselves to increase our chances of avoiding medical errors.

Your responsibility: educate yourself, ask questions
The better educated you are and the more questions you ask, the less chance you’ll have of being on the receiving end of a medical mistake. For example, when your doctor talks to you about treatment options, ask:

  • What your diagnosis really means
  • What the benefits and risks are of each treatment
  • If the treatments are based on the latest scientific evidence
  • How much the treatments cost
  • If treatment is necessary at all at this point

When choosing a doctor, look for someone who:

  • Is willing to advise you about issues you need help on, such as quitting smoking, losing weight, etc.
  • Has the qualifications you need if you have a specific condition. For example, if you have diabetes, ask whether your doctor has plenty of experience treating people with this condition.
  • Treats you with respect and answers your questions completely and with patience.
  • Is part of your health plan, unless you intend to pay on your own.

When you take over-the-counter medications:

  • Read the entire label and understand the instructions and any warnings.
  • Use a medication that treats only the symptoms that you have.
  • Check to see whether there are any activities or other drugs that you should avoid while taking the product.
  • Take the medication exactly the way the label recommends.
  • If you’re not clear about something, ask the pharmacist.
  • If you take a prescription medication, make sure it’s okay to mix that and the over-the-counter drug.
  • Make sure any medicine you give to children is designed specifically for them.
  • Don’t use medicines after the expiration date.

When your doctor prescribes a medication for you, ask:

  • The name of the drug and how it works
  • Whether a generic brand is available and would be as effective
  • What the possible side effects are and what you should do if you experience them.
  • What you should do if you miss a dose or take too much of a medication by accident.

If you have to have surgery:

  • Ask the surgeon what exactly will take place during the operation
  • How long the operation will take
  • What will happen after the surgery
  • How you can expect to feel after the surgery

The more you know, the better your questions are and the better you understand your treatment and medications.

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; The Institute for Healthcare Improvement; National Council on Patient Education and Information
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