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Medical Errors: Patients Deserve Safety

Last summer, a Senate sub-committee on patient safety heard testimony that preventable medical errors in hospitals were the third leading cause of death in the U.S. The committee had called a hearing after a study appeared in the Journal of Patient Safety that found that more than 400,000 patients die each year from preventable injuries suffered in hospitals.

Tragically, patients are suffering medical malpractice not just in hospitals—medical injuries can often result from a delayed or wrong diagnosis at a doctor’s office, from receiving the wrong medication, from medical error or acquiring an infection during a procedure, or from inadequate care at a skilled nursing facility or nursing home.

With the goal of improving patient safety and increasing medical provider accountability, two organizations launched grass-roots efforts to collect patient stories and lobby for change and transparency.

Safe Patient Project

In 2003, Consumer’s Union, which publishes Consumer’s Reports, launched an initiative to reduce hospital infection rates, which eventually became the Safe Patient Project. Their efforts helped pass patient safety laws in 27 states that require public reporting of infection rates.

The Safe Patient Project has now expanded to much more than preventing medically transmitted infections. If a patient has been harmed by medical errors, the Safe Patient Project is ready to collect their story, which they will use to lobby for improved patient safety. Their website is easy to navigate and stories are collected in the following areas:

  • Healthcare-Acquired Infections
  • Medical Errors
  • Doctor Accountability
  • Hip and Knee Replacement

The Safe Patient Project website also has an active blog that offers patient safety information, such as, “3 Questions to Ask Your Doctors About Your Medications,” “6 Questions to Ask Before Getting a CT Scan or X-Ray,” and “A Surprising Way to Avoid Medical Errors in the Hospital.”

According to the Safe Patient Project, if you are planning a hospital stay, ask a friend or relative to monitor your care, insist that nurses and doctors wash their hands, and ask about medications that are unfamiliar. Also make sure hospital staff checks your wristband when delivering medication and make sure that any surgical site is marked.

Patient Voice Institute

Like the Safe Patient Project, the Patient Voice Institute is a non-profit patient advocacy organization that collects patient stories and lobbies for positive change in patient safety and dignity.

The Patient Voice Institute also has a blog on their website with patient stories about their experiences and how patients and their families were motivated to effect change. One story talks about the late architect Michael Graves, who was paralyzed by a rare virus and had a dehumanizing hospital experience. Another story is written by a mother who tragically lost her 22-year-old son due to medical error during brain surgery. She later helped pass a patient protection law in Colorado.

The more informed you are as a patient, the less likely you are to become a medical error statistic. The more patient groups shine a light on the vast numbers of such errors, the more likely medical institutions are to effectuate positive changes for patient safety.

Do the Elderly Need to be Protected From Their Doctors?

Patients often make the mistake of believing they can place their full confidence and trust in the skill and knowledge of their medical providers, many times not realizing that neglect or medical malpractice can be fairly common, especially among the elderly.

A study published online last May in the medical journal Injury Prevention found that one in five Medicare patients suffered an injury from medical treatment not related to their underlying condition. The study drew attention to outpatient care, citing that most of the malpractice happened in doctors’ offices, clinics, surgery centers and nursing homes, with one-third occurring in hospitals.

Researchers noted that the more delicate the health of the patient, the more likely it was that he or she would experience a medical injury during treatment. They found that elderly patients were often more vulnerable to being given the wrong medications or receiving treatments that could induce allergic reactions or additional complications, adding to their previously existing underlying illnesses or problems.

The study also drew attention to complications that go hand-in-hand with medical malpractice–death rates are estimated to double when additional injuries occur with the elderly, along with increased health care costs due to extended and comprehensive follow-up treatment.

The focus of this study is to recognize the cause of unnecessary medical injuries that elderly patients are experiencing. It is also a wake-up call for members of the health care profession on the need to be educated in geriatric medicine, and understand that the elderly, because they are more vulnerable than healthy young adults, need a greater degree of care and protection when receiving medical treatment.