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Health Matters: Errors in patient care

March 28, 2009
By Dr. Josh Schwartzberg

The American healthcare system is regarded as the most sophisticated in the world, yet medical errors have been estimated to cause 44,000 to 98,000 deaths in U.S. hospitals each year. Patient safety and prevention of mistakes has become a top priority, and many aggressive measures have been implemented. This can run the gamut from hand washing to marking the site of planned surgery prior to an operation.

Both the complexity of healthcare delivery as well as communication issues can play a role in the continuation of this problem. Outside the hospital, errors can occur in clinics, labs, doctors' offices, nursing homes and pharmacies, and can involve medicines, surgery, diagnosis, equipment or lab reports.

Communication between doctors and their patients is too often rushed or taken for granted. I think it is crucial that every patient understands everything about their diagnosis, tests that need to be done, intended treatment and medications. This takes time and requires plain language that the patient can easily understand and be able to repeat when they get home.

Make sure that each of your doctors knows everything you're taking, including prescriptions, as well as over-the-counter medicines and any dietary supplements. It's a good idea to bring everything to your doctor once a year in a bag to review the ongoing need of each pill and any side effects.

Make sure all allergies or unusual reactions to previous medicines are on record. The doctor's handwriting on any prescription should be clear and legible. It is important to understand what each medication is for and what side effects might commonly occur. This includes awareness of conflict between medications; this issue is easily resolved by the use of electronic prescribing systems.

A pharmacy study showed that 88 percent of medicine errors involved either the wrong drug or the wrong dose, and it makes sense to ask the pharmacist if your medicine is what the doctor ordered.

If you need to be admitted to the hospital, you can ask your physician which one is best for your particular condition. Don't be embarrassed to ask healthcare workers that have direct contact with you about washing their hands. When surgery is necessary, make sure that you, your doctor and your surgeon are clear about what exactly will be done and that you understand possible complications beforehand. At the time of discharge, make sure you fully understand your diagnosis and treatment .

Don't be shy about questioning anyone who is involved with your care and make sure that all health professionals treating you have your complete health information available. It could be helpful to have a trusted friend or family member be there with you and ask important questions. A good Web site to learn more about your diagnosis is the National Guidelines Clearinghouse at

By being your own strong advocate interacting with the health care system and asking the right questions you will get better care and lower the chance of medical errors. Considering what health care costs today, and make sure you get your money's worth.

Dr. Schwartzberg practices in Lake Placid, Willsboro and Burlington.



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