Avoiding Medical Error: What Patients Can Do

Avoiding Medical Error: What Patients Can Do

Did you know that this week is Patient Safety Awareness Week? Whether or not we realize it, we are all patients in our lives at some point. In this era of advanced technology, research, and medical training, it is natural for patients to expect safe care from their medical professionals. However, incidences of harm to patients resulting from preventable medical and diagnostic errors occur in practice, and are the major cause for medical malpractice claims. The National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) reports that outside the surgical field, a faulty diagnosis is the most common type of medical error, and that patients who are hospitalized have an 8.4% chance of receiving a “wrong, missed, or unintentionally delayed” diagnosis. Further, a Harvard Medical Practice Study found that approximately 9% of autopsies revealed major diagnostic errors that went undetected while the patient was alive. The NPSF has designated March 12-18 as a time to recognize the importance of health professionals and the public taking action together to reduce medical errors and prevent harm in the world of healthcare.

Don’t know where to begin? Patients who step up to communicate with medical providers and become informed, active members of their healthcare team can better protect themselves and set a standard for all of us to ensure safe care. Here are some steps you can take before your next appointment:

1. Be proactive: prepare ahead of time.

If you are one of the many who feel embarrassed, rushed, or simply not your best while visiting the doctor or pharmacist, there’s a chance you could forget to ask the right questions, or it may slip your mind to mention concerns. Take the pressure off by preparing beforehand!

  • Draw up a list of all your questions/concerns and bring them with you to the appointment. You could also make a master list of your medications, dosages, and allergies (to reduce the chances of negative interactions) and bring it with you. The NPSF provides this free and printable wallet card to keep this kind of information handy. 
  • Keep a complete and clear written record of symptoms (what they are, when they started, if they have responded to treatment, etc.) to bring to the appointment.
  • If you suspect you have a medical condition or think you may be developing one, take the time to research it so you are more informed going in to discuss causes with your healthcare provider.
  • You have the right to bring someone you trust to your appointment to act as an advocate and help you navigate the healthcare system. Be sure it is someone who will act on your behalf, but will also work well with members of your healthcare team. Hospitals usually have professionals who can take on this role, called Patient Representatives or Patient Advocates. It may be useful to inquire with your hospital about whether this service is available.


2. Communicate: take time to understand.

Whether it’s medical jargon or just fast talking that has you confused, there is absolutely no shame in asking your doctor or pharmacist to help you understand decisions that relate to your health. Patients should be cooperative, but involved.

  • Your doctor should be willing to help you understand: a) your condition(s) and state of health b) the impact of the condition and why the chosen treatment is important and c) the treatment steps need to be taken to keep your condition under control. To create this kind of direct and open communication between patients and healthcare providers, NPSF created Ask Me 3, a 3-question checklist that you can use when meeting with healthcare providers. The questions are:
    • What is my main problem?
    • What do I need to do?
    • Why is it important for me to do this?
  • Keep in mind that online research is not a substitute for a medical degree, and that diagnosis often times involves an element of uncertainty. But do not be afraid to ask “what else could this be?” or raise questions that you might have about how your doctor settled on their diagnosis.

Here is the free printable with the Ask Me 3 questions that you can bring to your appointment (it even includes a page with spaces where you can write answers).

3. Be thorough: follow up.

  • Don’t assume that “no news is good news.” Within reason, feel free to call and check on test results, medications, and other needs of which you’d like to remain informed.


If you have been injured or become ill as the result of medical negligence, please do not hesitate to call our office for a free legal consultation at (727) 786-5000 or fill out our case evaluation form on the Contact page of our website.


Want to join the NPSF in its commitment to increase patient safety? Take the pledge here.


For more information on the National Patient Safety Foundation and its mission, visit their website here.


















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