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Wednesday, January 02, 2008 12:00 PM

Navigating Health Care: Steps Health Care Consumers Can Take to Avoid Medical Errors

Rand: Medical errors are one of the nation’s leading causes of death and injury. A report by the Institute of Medicine estimates that up to 98,000 people die in U.S. hospitals each year from medical errors. While government agencies and health care providers work together to make the health care system safer, in this segment on Navigating the Healthcare System, Dr. Clancy talks about the steps patients can take to help avoid medical errors. Dr. Clancy, help our listeners understand the full spectrum of what we are talking about when we discuss medical errors.

Dr. Clancy: Medical errors happen when something that was planned as a part of medical care doesn’t work out, or when the wrong plan was used in the first place. When most people think of medical errors, they think about a patient getting the wrong medication or an operation on the wrong part of the body. However, there are many other types of medical errors: for example when a patient’s test results are misinterpreted. Another example could be a patient who is given the wrong type of blood. Or a really simple example is when a doctor orders low-salt meals for a patient in a hospital, but that patient is given regular meals instead. Also, it’s important to know that medical errors don’t just happen in hospitals. They can happen in other health care settings like clinics, pharmacies or nursing homes.

Rand: It sounds like some of these issues are out of the patient’s control. Is there anything a patient can do to help decrease his risks?

Dr. Clancy: Absolutely! There are five important tips that all patients should follow. The first is ask questions if you have doubts or concerns, and make sure you understand the answers. The second is to keep and bring a list of all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, supplements and so forth. The third tip is to get the results of any test or procedure that’s done. The fourth is to talk to your doctor about which hospital is best for your health needs if you need to go to the hospital. And the fifth and final tip is to make sure you understand what will happen if you need surgery or have another medical procedure done.

Rand: So, what’s the bottom line for patients when they go to a doctor’s office or any other health care setting?

Dr. Clancy: The single most important way a patient can help to prevent errors is to be an active member of his or her health care team. That means taking part in the decision-making process with your doctor and communicating with your health care team.

Rand: Dr. Clancy, thanks for joining us.

Dr. Clancy: You’re welcome.

Rand: AHRQ’s "5 Steps to Safer Health Care" patient fact sheet is available online at ahrq.gov/consumer/5steps.htm.

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