As many as 195,000 patients die each year in US hospitals because of medical errors, according to a recent study by HealthGrades, a leading health-care rating company. Here's how to stay safe next time you're in the hospital. If you're too incapacitated by your illness or injury to do these things for yourself, a family member can do many of them for you.
1. Keep a list of prescribed medications with dosages. You can get this list from the attending physician (the doctor in charge of your case), an intern, resident or nurse. Receiving the wrong medication is one of the most common-and dangerous-hospital errors. When a hospital staff member hands you a pill or starts to hook an intravenous (IV) bag to your arm, ask what you're being given. If the drug isn't on the list of medications you have been prescribed…
- Ask "What does this treat?" If the answer isn't a condition that you think you have, doublecheck that the drug provider knows your name and birthday, to confirm you're the patient he/she thinks you are.
- Make sure it's not a drug with a similar name. If you've been prescribed Zantac and someone's trying to give you Xanax, someone may have misheard the instructions and provided the wrong medication.
- Also, if it is a drug you've been prescribed but you previously received a different dosage, make sure the change was intentional
2. Label yourself. If you're in the hospital for an operation on a limb, a lung or anything else that you have more than one of on or in your body, use a marker or ballpoint pen to write "this arm," "this leg" or just "yes" on the side that should go under the knife, so there is no confusion in the operating room. (At some hospitals, your surgeon will sign his initials to the body part in advance of your operation) Don't use an "X" to mark the spot, because an "X" is ambiguous-it could be misinterpreted as "not here."
- If you're allergic to any medications, make a sign to this effect and post it over your hospital bed.
Example: "Allergic to Penicillin."
3. Schedule your hospital stay wisely. New interns, residents and medical school students begin assignments at teaching hospitals in early July. If possible, postpone elective procedures until a different time, when young medical professionals have more experience.
- If you can't avoid a July stay in a teaching hospital, be wary about what you let interns and medical students do. If one wants to draw blood, insert a catheter or perform another common hospital task, ask how many times he/she has done it before. If the answer doesn't fill you with confidence, insist that a nurse or resident take over.
- Also, at any time of the year, try to schedule your surgery for early in the day. By the end of a long day, even the most skilled surgeons aren't at the top of their game. Also, because patients aren't allowed to eat or drink before surgery, a late operation means extra hours of hunger, thirst and worry.
4. Get to know the staff. A wide range of doctors, nurses, physician's assistants, interns, residents, orderlies and others might be involved in your care. Whenever a new face arrives, politely ask his name and what his role is, unless his name tag makes this obvious, then engage in some friendly conversation.
- If you make a personal connection with everyone involved in your care, it reduces the odds that you'll be mistaken for a different patient with potentially dangerous results. It also increases the odds that you'll get prompt care. Because most hospital patients are preoccupied with their health problems, the few who remain composed, personable and interested in the hospital staff often are treated more favorably.
5. Know who should do what. Find out when you can expect your attending physician to visit your bedside, and save any questions you have until then. Answers you receive from anyone else might not be definitive.
- Don't let a UAP (also known as unlicensed assistive personnel or nurse assistant) insert an IV or catheter, change a sterile dressing, give you a shot or feed you through a tube. Such tasks should be handled by trained medical staff, such as a registered nurse. Check the person's name tag. If there's no designation, such as RN, ask what his training is.
6. Select the right surgeon. Unless it is an emergency, you shouldn't necessarily settle for the first surgeon you're sent to. When you meet with a surgeon for a consultation, ask…
- Are you board-certified in this specialty? Or check this on the Web site of the American Board of Medical Specialties (www.abms.org). You will have to register, but it is free.
- How many times have you performed this exact procedure! You want someone who has done it hundreds or even thousands of times. If the procedure is rare, you at least want a surgeon who performs it dozens of times per year.
7. Find the right hospital. If your surgeon has privileges at more than one hospital in your area, the annual "America's Best Hospital Guide" of US News and World Report (www.us neus.com and click on "Best Hospitals") can help you decide which facility is best for a given procedure. Be aware that your health insurance might limit you to a particular hospital or restrict your choice of surgeons.
8. Plan for the unexpected before you wind up in a hospital. Ask your doctor now which emergency room in your region he considers the best, assuming that there's more than one. Of course, in situations where every second counts, the closest ER is almost always the best choice.)
9. Speak up. Make no effort to conceal your pain in a crowded emergency room-the ER staff might equate a quiet patient with a low-priority medical problem and treat others ahead of you. If you must wait, let the staff know if the pain gets worse...you have trouble breathing ...feel increasingly light-headed...or lose feeling in, or control over, part of your body.
10. Encourage bedside visitors. Visitors don't just keep you company in the hospital. They can keep an eye on the quality of your care when you're unable to do so yourself. And because hospital employees know that family members keep an eye on what's going on, more visitors tend to mean more attention from the staff.
11. Warn your anesthesiologist of any loose teeth. A loose tooth could be knocked out during intubation (when a breathing tube is placed in your windpipe), causing a potentially serious infection if the tooth reaches your lungs. Also, ask your doctor about removing any dentures or artificial teeth before you're taken to the operating room.