The Boeing 747. Imagine if two of these crashed every day.
CNN published 10 Shocking Medical Mistakes this past weekend. As a medical malpractice lawyer, it’s a little hard to be shocked by the doctor and hospital horror stories. However, these stories are always heartbreaking. Here’s a shocking statistic:
Medical errors kill more than a quarter million people every year in the United States and injure millions. Add them all up and “you have probably the third leading cause of death” in the country, says Dr. Peter Pronovost, an anesthesiologist and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
250,000 deaths a year is no joke. That’s the equivalent of 625 Boeing-747 jets crashing every year. If we lost that many airplanes, you bet we would do something about. But medical malpractice? Well, that’s just frivolous lawsuits, right?
In case you don’t have the patience to go through the “click for the next shocking medical mistake” format, here there are, along with some commentary about what you can do to prevent similar injury to yourself or a loved one:
- Treating the wrong patient: make sure that every doctor and nurse who enters your hospital room checks your wristband, and compares it to their chart. This can prevent needless radiology or medication errors.
- Leaving medical equipment in the body cavity: one all-to common error occurs when doctors and nurses leave equipment in the body–surgical sponges are the most common. Speak to the doctor before the surgery, and make sure he/she knows that you are concerned about such an event, and ask them to pay particular attention to the equipment checklist before they sew you back up. If you feel unusual pains after surgery, don’t hesitate to request a radiological scan that might pick up this equipment.
- Lost patients: particularly for nursing homes and hospitals who care for patients with dementia or Alzheimers, a risk is that patients might walk away from the facility or get lost in the facility. Sometimes they get hurt crossing neighboring streets, or die from dehydration or wound complications. If a loved one has a mental challenge that might make him or her susceptible to this risk, make sure that someone is always with him/her, or discuss the protocol for locking the patients door to prevent wandering.
- Fake doctors: most medical malpractice is the result of doctors who simply make mistakes. Most doctors mean well. However, some people claim to be doctors and sell their services, including surgery, without the education to back it up. Check out the doctor through the American Medical Association’s website and your state physician licensing board (in Maryland, it is the Maryland Board of Physicians). Also, check the court system to see if your doctor has had any negative lawsuits verdicts.
- Waiting in the Emergency Room: the news is replete with stories of patients who had been incorrectly triaged who died in the emergency room waiting area, or who ended up with permanent and disfiguring injuries (like amputations from flesh-eating bacteria). Patients must advocate on behalf of themselves–the reality is that you cannot trust the medical team to get it right 100% of the time, and if your injury seems serious, get to another hospital, or be the squeaky wheel until you get help.
- Air bubbles in blood: one story was about a patient who was ready for discharge, but whose nurse pulled out a tube from his chest incorrectly. Air entered the wound, cutting off oxygen to his major organs, and causing his death. If you are ever concerned that a health care provider is inexperienced, request that a supervisor be present during any procedures.
- Operating on the wrong body part: when going in for surgery, make sure that the doctor marks the correct limb before anesthesia is administered.
- Hospital-acquired infection: hospitals are not clean places. Before the doctors or nurses touch you, make sure they wash their hands. It’s okay to remind them of this. If they give you an attitude, contact a supervisor. Hospital infection and cleanliness is a big deal, and hospitals spend untold amounts of money trying to get it right. They want to know if their employees are not following directions.
- Wrong tubes: mistaking one plastic tube for another can mean the food is pumped into the circulatory system, or drugs are pumped into the stomach. When a nurse or doctor comes in intending to inject something, make sure you know what it is, and double-check that it goes in the right tube. Whenever a tube is inserted, find out what the purpose is so you can advocate on your own behalf.
- Waking up during surgery: when anesthesia partially fails, patients may wake up and be aware of the surgery (and the pain), but be unable to speak or cry out. There is unfortunately little that can be done to prevent this, other than speaking with the anesthesiologist beforehand, and finding out when the equipment was last maintained.
The most important thing is that you are the advocate for your own health. Doctors are overworked, stressed, sleep-deprived, and human. They make mistakes. As patients, we have the ability to prevent some of them.