Tips To Avoid 3 Hospital Errors

What you can do to help prevent medical mistakes while in the hospital.


Going to the hospital can be frightening, even if you’re having scheduled surgery and have looked forward to a new pain-free joint for months or years. That’s because the place we go for healing holds its own set of risks – infections, medication mistakes and even mix-ups.

Tempted to call off your surgery? Don’t! Fortunately, planning and vigilance can help ensure your safety while in the hospital, says Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, director of adult critical care medicine, patient safety researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and author of Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals: How One Doctor's Checklist Can Help Us Change Health Care from the Inside Out (Hudson Street Press, 2010).

Here are three things that can go wrong and what you can do to greatly improve your odds that they won’t.

1. Wrong-Site Surgery or Other Errors

Imagine going into surgery to have your painful left knee replaced and waking up to a sutured incision over your right knee. Incidents like that are rare, but not unheard of. Between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2013, 463 incidents of wrong-site, wrong-side, wrong-procedure and even wrong-patient surgeries were reported to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, a nonprofit organization that evaluates and accredits hospitals nationwide. But the real number of these errors may be much higher—as many as 50 incidents a week in the U.S.

What you can do. Make sure that all the details of your surgery are down on paper, and review the document before your procedure. Before surgery, remind your doctor and other professionals who see you what procedure you’re having and where on your body it will be done. Before you go into the operating room, the surgeon should use a permanent marker to mark your surgical site with his or her initials. Also have the surgical team verify your name, the procedure you’re having, as well as the side of your body and the site.

2. Infection

About 1 in 25 patients contract some type of infection while in the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospital-acquired infections rank among the five top leading causes of death in the U.S., says the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality.

What you can do. When choosing a hospital, compare their infection rates, which you can do using a tool like Medicare’s Hospital Compare, or just call the hospitals and ask.  Pick the hospital with the lowest rate—the closer to zero, the better. Once you’re in the hospital, make sure doctors, nurses and other medical staff who have direct contact with you wash their hands before treating you. They should also sterilize stethoscopes and any other medical devices that come into contact with your body, and clean the IV site before inserting it.  If you have a catheter placed after surgery, ask each day if you still need it. “Catheters help patients, but they also have their risks,” Pronovost says.

3. Medication Errors

Medication errors are among the most common mistakes occurring in U.S. hospitals. Each year at least 1.3 million people are harmed by medication errors, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Medication errors may involve prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, and can include mistakes in prescribing, administering and monitoring the response to those medications.

What you can do. Before being admitted to the hospital for surgery, speak with your doctor about all of the medications – including OTC drugs and nutritional supplements ­– you take and find out if there are any you need to start – or stop – before your hospital stay. Make a list of all your medications and their dosages and take it to the hospital with you so your doctor can check for duplication or drug interactions. Before taking any medication in the hospital, ask the person administering it the name of the medication and the reason for giving it. If anything doesn’t seem right, speak up. Ask a friend or family member to stay with you in the 24 hours or so after surgery, to ask questions and be your advocate when you may still be groggy from anesthesia.

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