How patients can avoid medical errors

Most of you are quite familiar with the rather astounding facts regarding medical errors.   There are many reasons why medical errors occur in healthcare. There are errors in omission, there are errors because of poor communication, there is the ever present risk of human error and perhaps the ever increasing stress on physicians to see more and more patients in less and less time. There are patient specific variables too.

You do not want to be a statistic

I am not here to recount or rehash the numbers. My goal is simply to apprise you of some very simple steps that you can take to try and avoid being another sad statistic.

Evan Falchuk, author of the SeeFirstBlog wrote an editorial recently guiding patients on avoiding misdiagnoses.  Misdiagnoses, or misinformation, once perpetuated through your medical record, or among your medical providers, can play a huge role in enabling a medical error to occur. Evan goes through a number of steps that you can take to minimize the risks of medical errors.

Your role in avoiding medical errors

One of the most important steps you can take, is to be as accurate as possible in filling out that annoying paperwork when you first enter a physician’s office. We all know how annoying it is to have to fill out the same paperwork, each and every time we enter a physician’s office. Unfortunately, if you are not complete and accurate in completing the paperwork, your physician may not have a complete and accurate picture of a significant portion of your past medical history. A very accurate history, including your family history, and the current and accurate list of your medications and current medical issues can be of very significant importance in determining what your current health status or disease may be. As health information exchanges, and collaborative networks enable the sharing of information — that can work both to your benefit, as well as  amplify the risk of harm.   Bad information in … bad information out.  These systems will be highly dependent on the quality of the information initially entered.

Look at your medical record

Recent studies have shown that both physicians and patients were very receptive to this concept.  This will give you a chance to verify the accuracy of the notes generated from your previous encounter and question any comments your doctor may have added to the record.

One very important steps you to take is to ask to see your medical record, obtain copies of previous notes, and verify them for accuracy.

Assuming that your healthcare provider is beginning with a complete and accurate set of information about you, it is now very important for you to assist that provider by giving them a complete and accurate history of the issue that has brought you into their office. A symptom, or provoking factor, which may not seem important to you, may make all the difference in arriving at the proper diagnosis, and thus, the treatment plan. As a follow through, when your physician or healthcare provider is discussing their thoughts on your diagnosis, and a possible treatment plan, it is extremely important that you feel comfortable in questioning either the diagnosis or the treatment plan and asking whether other options or possible diagnoses are possible — and what, if any further steps are necessary to further improve the accuracy of the diagnosis and whether any treatment is necessary.

Second medical opinions

Very few patients have a problem seeking a second opinion from another surgeon or specialist. I often encourage it. Do not be afraid that your physician will feel slighted or offended. They’ll get over it.   Putting another set of eyeballs on a difficult problem will frequently improve the accuracy of you diagnosis. Although many patients do in fact seek second or third opinions from a specialist, they rarely seek second opinions, if ever, on diagnostic studies. I’ve spoken about this on many occasions.

Radiologists are no different than the physician whose office you are currently in. Many diagnostic facilities do not have specialists who read MRIs of one particular area or subspecialty within radiology. Many diagnostic facilities will have one radiologist read all studies. That is very much like an orthopedist who will operate on a spine, shoulder, knee, and a hand on the same day. That lack of sub specialization increases the likelihood of medical error. I will personally seek a second opinion on many patients’ MRI interpretations if I do not agree with them. I strongly suggest that you do the same. The very same holds true for pathology specimens. There are pathologists who are highly subspecialized in certain areas and thus are far better qualified to determine whether or not a tumor they’re looking at is malignant, benign, and what subtype of tumor it might be — which could make the world of difference when determining what treatments are available. This is an incredibly important yet tremendously underutilized second opinion mechanism.

Use your own voice and words

One significant consideration when seeking a second opinion, is that you do not want to be the source or the mechanism for perpetuating misinformation or misdiagnoses. When you seek a second opinion, you want to give that physician information that you feel is relevant and not necessarily information that you were given from the first opinion physician. Confirmation bias, or planting a seed in the ears of your second opinion physician’s mindset could simply lead to a perpetuation of a misdiagnosis and result in a wasted opportunity for meaningful second opinion.

Plan ahead for your physician visit

Many of you when you arrive in our offices are nervous and this can have significant ramifications on the quality of the communication that we have. Even more importantly, once we have completed the history, as well as the physical exam, we enter into a discussion about what the possible diagnoses are — and of course what the possible treatment plans are.  If you have not understood the diagnosis nor some of the terms utilized when the treatment plan was discussed, then in all likelihood you are not remembering anything else the physician is saying to you.

  • Bring a friend. It is extremely important that you consider bringing someone else with you to the office to help you remember what transpired.
  • Write it down. In addition, it is aptly imperative that you bring a notepad with you to record what you’re being told.
  • Keywords. Don’t be shy to ask the physician for a list of keywords or search terms so that you can go home and do your homework online to further improve your level of understanding of what was discussed. Lastly, not be afraid to ask a physician for a copy of a page that he or she may have written some diagrams or drawn out and algorithm, suggesting further treatment or diagnostic considerations.
  • Ask if you physician, given the same diagnosis or treatment options would opt for the treatment they are recommending.  Recent studies and anecdotal reports might surprise you.

The data and research on medical errors is quite real. Many patients are being harmed, or meaningful treatment is being delayed, on a daily basis.  We all have a vested interest to change this. You can play a very significant role in minimizing the risk and to minimize your chance of being a medical statistic.

-Howard Luks is an orthopedic surgeon who blogs at his self-titled site, Howard J. Luks, MD, where this article originally appeared.


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