You count on doctors and hospitals to protect your heath. But unthinkably, sometimes the opposite happens.
Medical error is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Cancer and heart disease are still the leading culprits. But 250,000 Americans die each year as a result of preventable medical mistakes like post-surgical infections and medication mix ups.
What can you do to make sure it doesn't happen to you? Here are 10 tips to guard against medical errors:
1. Prepare a proactive medical summary of your health conditions, allergies, physicians and all medications. Show your family where it's kept. In the event of an emergency or hospitalization, it can provide the medical staff with crucial information fast.
2. Consult a trusted health care professional for recommendations when looking for a new doctor. Don't rely on word of mouth, online reviews or advertisements. Your best path to a quality provider is another provider you know and trust.
3. Avoid hospitalizations if possible … really! Especially if you're elderly. Infections run rampant in hospitals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on any given day, one in 25 hospital patients has a hospital-acquired infection.
4. Organize shifts among relatives to ensure the patient is always accompanied if hospitalized. Don't let loved ones go it alone. But only enlist those who are observant and communicate well.
5. Pay attention, be observant, take notes and provide information readily while in the hospital. Ask questions, but courteously. Keep a record of the name and shifts of nurses and doctors.
6. Don't hesitate to "speak up for clean hands," to quote the CDC. Cleanliness helps prevent infection. Ask the medical staff to wear gloves or use foam hand sanitizer before touching you. Wash your own hands frequently; make sure visitors, too. And ask cleaning staff to regularly sanitize objects that others touch.
7. Speak up -- politely -- if you think something is wrong. Listen to your gut: doctors and nurses are human and can make mistakes. (If all else fails, go up the hospital food chain -- ask for a meeting with "risk management" and a hospital care team to discuss your concerns.)
8. It's best not to chat with the nurse when he or she is dispensing your meds; distraction can lead to medication mistakes. Take care to know your pills in every way possible. Ask the nurse to review each pill with you before you swallow it.
9. Exercise vigilance especially during the admission and discharge process. The potential for errors is most likely to occur during the transition process to get you admitted or discharged.
10. Obtain copies of your written discharge instructions. Make sure you completely understand your follow-up plan after a doctor's visit, emergency room visit or hospitalization. Know what medications you'll be taking and how often, and when to follow up with your physician. It sounds obvious, but in one recent study, 54 percent of discharged patients couldn't accurately recall their follow-up instructions.
Why medical errors happen
The modern health care system is remarkably complex, and patients are no longer held firmly at its center. Various factors have contributed to an environment where mistakes are more likely to occur.
For example, hospitals are trapped between tight financial constraints and attending to patients. Often, they're under pressure to discharge patients quickly -- sometimes too early -- to free up beds.
Many hospitals are chronically understaffed with regards to nurses (the patient's primary point of contact) and support staff (like janitors, charged with the very important job of keeping the hospital clean).
It's no better for physicians, who are continuously pulled in multiple directions. Today's doctor spends hours documenting health records and completing insurance forms -- time that once was directly devoted to patients. At the same time, they're reimbursed by health insurers at ever-shrinking rates, even as their malpractice insurance premiums soar.
This is why many doctors are increasing their patient load or relying on less-qualified physician assistants to handle their caseload. End result: less one-on-one time with patients and a greater risk of something falling through the cracks.
For all these reasons, patients and their families need to take a more active role in managing their health care. They need to be informed and vigilant. They need to be ready to advocate for themselves whenever necessary.
Of course, it's impossible to eliminate 100 percent of your risk of becoming a victim of medical error. But by paying attention and speaking out, you can vastly improve your odds.
•Teri Dreher, RN, CCRN and iRNPA, is an author and award-winning RN patient advocate and a pioneer in the growing field of private patient advocacy. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, today she is owner/founder of NShore Patient Advocates, the largest advocacy agency in the Chicago area. She was awarded her industry's highest honor, The APHA H. Kenneth Schueler Patient Advocacy Compass Award, in 2015. She is also active in social causes, participating in and leading medical missions to Africa for more than a decade. Recently, she co-founded the task force, No Little Girl, which combats child sex trafficking in the Chicago area. She recently published her first book, "Patient Advocacy Matters."