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illions of Americans walk each year for breast cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and polycystic kidney disease. So why isn’t there a walk for medical errors, the third leading cause of death in the United States?

By the latest estimate, medical mistakes kill more than 400,000 Americans each year. Few people realize how common they are — they tend not to make an impression unless you, or a loved one, are on the receiving end of one.

I learned about the challenges facing patients and their caregivers when my teenage son, Zachary, was battling brain cancer. Fortunately, he didn’t experience a medical error. But I have heard countless stories from family members, friends, and clients who have.

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The National Academy of Medicine and other experts are working to reduce medical errors. But they can’t do it alone. Patients, their family members, and other caregivers can — and must — play important roles. Their involvement is more important than ever. Doctors and nurses face mounting pressure, thanks in part to today’s increasingly complex health care structures and technological advances. Electronic health records often make their day-to-day workloads heavier, not lighter, and the time allotted for patient visits is shrinking.

After my son died, I founded Zaggo, a nonprofit organization for patients and families. As part of my work, I arm patients and their families with the tools and information they need to be effective members of their medical teams. Here are some of the main things I recommend for preventing medical mistakes.

Practice good communication

Patients (and their family members) who communicate effectively with their clinicians are more likely to experience fewer medical mistakes and have better health outcomes. Coming prepared to an appointment or a conversation can foster good communication. Because doctors depend heavily on your “story” to make a diagnosis, be prepared to tell it. Write down what is bothering you, how and when the problem started, how severe it is, and any other helpful information. It’s also important to list all of the medications you are taking, including over-the-counter items like ibuprofen, vitamins, and herbs or other supplements. Without this information, or if your doctor isn’t listening to it, the odds increase that you’ll get an incorrect diagnosis, which accounts for up to 10 percent of patient deaths and more than 15 percent of adverse events.

Know your medications

Medication errors affect nearly 1.5 million Americans a year. That’s why it is important to check medications before taking them. If you are prescribed a new medication, understand when and how to take it, what it is supposed to do for you, and what the possible side effects are. If you are given a medicine that doesn’t look familiar, either at the pharmacy or in the hospital, speak up. I know of several people who were given the wrong medication while hospitalized. Luckily, they knew enough to alert the nurse and didn’t take it. Unfortunately, many people put their full trust in health care providers and don’t speak up even if they see a medication that doesn’t look right.

Be vigilant about handwashing

Up to half of health care professionals don’t regularly wash their hands before patient contact. That’s an important cause of health care-acquired infections. Although it can be difficult to ask a health care provider to wash his or her hands or put on clean gloves, each of us must feel empowered to do this. I know this can be an awkward request, but with a little humor and a lot of respect it doesn’t have to be painful. Try saying something that acknowledges your own concern, such as, “I really have a thing about germs. Could you please wash your hands again or put on clean gloves?” If you are hospitalized, you and your guests should wash hands regularly and clean hard surfaces with antiseptic wipes.

Most people aren’t prepared for a medical journey. It often starts suddenly, causing stress and feelings of being overwhelmed. Few of us learn beforehand what to do to be engaged, effective members of the medical team. But if you educate yourself, communicate clearly with your doctors and nurses, and speak up if something does not seem right, you are much more likely to get the care you deserve and avoid being the victim of a medical mistake, big or small.

Together, patients, families, and their medical teams can make big strides to reduce medical errors and ultimately save lives. We might not have walks devoted to medical mistakes anytime soon, but we can raise awareness of the dangers and take simple steps to reduce them one visit at a time.

Roberta Carson is founder and president of Zaggo, Inc., a national nonprofit devoted to empowering patients and their families to be more engaged, effective members of their medical team.

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  • My family hasn’t died from medical error. (Third leading cause of death)
    The quality of life for three of my immediate family was/is ruined by medical professionals.
    The rest of us have suffered the results for decades.
    Untold and unrecognized suffering.

    • But of those who die by mistake every year,
      think of them and realize there is close to no accountability.
      It’s a feature. Not a bug.
      Third leading cause of death.
      Hundreds of thousands
      Of people.

  • I love the article, but my concern is that so many of us figured out the errors but couldn’t get corrections, change for others, acknowledgements or compensation in tort reform states. DISCLOSURE movie (created for risk managers) and available from SorryWorks! Facebook page for hospitals explains “deny&defend” strategy. Dr. Lars Aaning SD(Yankton County Press) also explains the culture making it tough to really correct mistakes. —–Physicians Don’t Squeal On Physicians According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, physicians are obligated to disclose their errors to patients. But that duty does not cover those made by other physicians, and in a recent ProPublica study over half of interviewed physicians knew of an error made by a colleague during the past year. Most of these mistakes were never reported: “it’s a common problem.” Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in America and according to ProPublica only 1% are ever reported. Identifying the root cause of any event that harms patients is the first step in modifying care to prevent harming another patient, and when that opportunity is lost or denied the problem becomes repetitive. So why are physicians loathe to report another physician’s error? The primary reason for this code of silence – the Mafia call it omerta – is that, with a few exceptions, reporting another physician’s mistakes leaves one vulnerable to retribution. “They’ll figure out a way to get back at you!” If the physician being reported is a “high earner”, the hospital will usually side with him and defend him, while turning their protected peer review processes on the reporting physician, who suddenly finds himself shunned and may have his own practice investigated. If the reporting physician is really determined to expose an error involving another physician or, worse yet, the hospital itself, that physician will probably be labeled “disruptive” – code for a physician being readied for dis-employment or de-credentialing for not toeing the corporate line. A chart review follows and usually reveals enough “cause” for psychological testing, reduction of privileges, and ultimate reporting to the National Practitioners data Bank as well as the state licensing board. So medicine and its laboratory, the hospital, are not like science – which thrives on discoveries made as a result of examining mistakes and errors.

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