To err may be human but forgiveness is impossible if you die from a medical mistake. As a survivor of medical mistakes, a certified life care planner, and a forensics expert who has seen the results of medical mistakes, I am alarmed at the rate of errors made in medicine and the public’s lack of knowledge about what to do about them. I am also concerned about the health of seniors during this recession, their inability to move geographically to be near family members who can serve as advocates in a health crisis, and the consequences to the long-term survival of those who may not be able to help themselves in a crisis, either through lack of knowledge or advocacy. This article focuses first on what are the most common medical mistakes, their causes, and finally what folks can do to protect themselves from them, particularly during this recession.
The common medical mistakes include misdiagnosis, surgery errors, infections caught in hospitals or medical clinics, medication errors, and administrative errors. These often occur for a variety of reasons. Doctors work long hours and under difficult conditions in emergency rooms, so the possibility for errors increase as a consequence of doctor fatigue. Poor training of administrative staff is another problem as is the attitude of a segment of health workers who treat the matter of medicine much too casually for the safety of citizens. The patients can also make mistakes due to misinformation or carelessness.
According to the Institute of Medicine 42% of all people surveyed experienced a medical mistake, There are an estimated 44,000 to 98,000 deaths annually from medical mistakes. 180,000 deaths are caused yearly from medication errors. Statistics in the Institute’s report indicate that medical errors may be the eighth leading cause of death among Americans. This is true even though it has also been determined that medical mistakes are underreported, so the problem may be even greater than the statistics indicate.
Seniors are isolated during difficult times like this recession when real estate prices have dropped precipitously, and many can’t sell their homes and move where family members can provide advocacy and care. So they have to rely on friends and members of their local communities to intercede on their behalf. What can be done about this problem that is likely to grow significantly as the recession deepens?
First the civilian medical system needs an overhaul. Barack Obama claims he wants to do that. One example of how to improve was set by the VA system who established a bar coding system to track medical mistakes requiring ID strips to be worn by nurses and patients that are attached to medications. Hazardous medications are stored away from areas of patient care, and there is a renewed emphasis on cooperation and correcting the system as opposed to placing blame. The medical system serving the general public might learn from the VA’s responses.
On an individual level seniors should do the following:
1. Be active in your health care, and make sure all of your doctors know every medicine and supplement you are taking. Take them to your doctor to determine if there are any problems and to make sure you doctor is properly informed. Advise your doctor about allergies and adverse reactions and ask specific and detailed questions about medications prescribed.
2. Don’t assume the pharmacist won’t make mistakes, and ask if the medicine is what the doctor has described. Ask questions about labels, how to measure liquid medications, and any other question that will provide information on the side effects, nature of the medication and proper use.
3. Choose hospitals that have a good track record for surgeries you might need.
4. Ask the doctor about follow up treatment
5. Demand that health professionals wash their hands.
6. Make sure doctors sign their initials on the site to be operated on to prevent operating in the wrong area.
7. Find a friend who can speak up for you if you can’t. Don’t be resistant to asking for help because of embarrassment, because being shy might get you killed accidentally because of a medical mistake.
8. Get test results, even if they aren’t discussed by your doctor.
9. Research your condition or ask a friend or family member to do it for you so that you are as informed as possible about a medical condition.
10. That old adage about the squeaking wheel getting the grease is good advice for dealing with medical care. Speak up often, with courtesy to deflect anger, and remind care providers that you are the best source of information about yourself.
Seniors need more, not less, information about medical procedures and practices related to their health during recessions when family members aren’t available to advocate. Barack Obama has told the nation he hopes to revamp medical care. Until that happens, taking the time to prepare before an emergency may save your life later.
1. Clearinghouse, A Federal report on medical errors (Publication No. OM 00-0004) available from the AHRQ Publications or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also AHRQ Publication No. 00-PO38 Current as of February 2000
2. Cornforth, Tracey, “How to Prevent Medical Mistakes,”http://womenshealth.about.com/od/commonhealthissues/a/bl20healthtips_3.htm
4. “Introduction to Medical Mistakes,” Wrong Diagnosis, December 8, 2008, http://www.wrongdiagnosis.com/mistakes/intro.htm