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Medical Errors Can Result in Injury/Death, But What Can Be Done?

Medical errors, such as misdiagnoses and surgical mistakes, are a serious concern in the United States. These errors can have lifelong consequences for either the injured party or the family of one who dies as a result of the mistake.

Recently, there has been an increased focus on patient safety, stemming from an eye-opening 2000 report compiled by the Institute of Medicine. According to the report, approximately 100,000 people die every year in the United States because of a medical error.

Not surprisingly, many of these deaths are the result of miscommunication or a misunderstanding between the hospital and the patient. Despite the mounds of paperwork a patient is required to complete throughout the course of a hospital stay and the information contained in the patient's medical chart, physicians and other medical staff still make fatal mistakes.

So what exactly can be done?

One suggestion many have put forth is the adoption of various safety checklists, to safeguard against harmful mistakes. For instance, in the operating room, experts have suggested a checklist to ensure the doctor performs the appropriate surgery in the right area of the patient's body. Tragically, incidents have been reported where a surgical error was made, wherein the doctor operated on the wrong body part or performed the wrong surgery.

Another common recommendation is to improve communication between the doctor and patient. Doctors should be aware of all of the medication to which their patients have been prescribed. For more intensive stays - for instance, in the case of surgery - patients should speak with doctors and get advice on the right place to have such a procedure done (some hospitals may have more expertise in certain procedures than others). Patients should not be afraid to ask questions, as more information is always better than the alternative.

Unfortunately, many of these medical errors occur among the elderly. It is estimated that 1.5 million people are victims of medication errors each year, with senior citizens making up the largest demographic.

Senior citizens are more likely to take prescription medication and are also more likely to have symptoms that affect their memory. For this reason, it may be advisable to chaperone a senior citizen to doctor's appointments to make sure that everyone is on the same page. This added safeguard can also help greatly enhance communication between the doctor and the patient.

Source: ProPublica, "Why Can't Medicine Seem to Fix Simple Mistakes?" Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein and Marshall Allen, July 20, 2012.

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