PATIENT FACT SHEET
20 Tips To Help Prevent
A g e n c y f o r H e a l t h c a re R e s e a rc h a n d Q u a l i t y • 2 1 0 1 E a s t J e ff e r s o n S t re e t • R o c k v i l l e , M D 2 0 8 5 2
Medical errors are one of the Nation’s on a salt-free diet is given a high-salt
leading causes of death and injury. A meal.
recent report by the Institute of
Most errors result from problems creat-
Medicine estimates that as many as
ed by today’s complex health care sys-
44,000 to 98,000 people die in U.S.
tem. But errors also happen when doc-
hospitals each year as the result of med-
tors and their patients have problems
ical errors. This means that more peo-
AHRQ is the lead agency charged with communicating. For example, a recent
ple die from medical errors than from
supporting research designed to improve the study supported by the Agency for
motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer,
quality of health care, reduce its cost, address Healthcare Research and Quality found
patient safety and medical errors, and
that doctors often do not do enough to
Government agencies, purchasers of help their patients make informed deci-
broaden access to essential services. AHRQ
group health care, and health care sions. Uninvolved and uninformed
sponsors and conducts research that provides
providers are working together to make patients are less likely to accept the doc-
evidence-based information on health care out- the U.S. health care system safer for tor’s choice of treatment and less likely
comes; quality; and cost, use, and access. The patients and the public. This fact sheet to do what they need to do to make the
information helps health care decisionmakers— tells what you can do. treatment work.
patients and clinicians, health system leaders,
What are Medical Errors? What Can You Do? Be Involved
and policymakers—make more informed in Your Health Care
decisions and improve the quality of health
Medical errors happen when something
that was planned as a part of medical The single most important way you
care doesn’t work out, or when the can help to prevent errors is to be an
wrong plan was used in the first place. active member of your health care
Medical errors can occur anywhere in team. That means taking part in every
the health care system: in hospitals, decision about your health care.
clinics, outpatient surgery centers, doc- Research shows that patients who are
tors’ offices, nursing homes, pharma- more involved with their care tend to
cies, and patients’ homes. Errors can get better results.
involve medicines, surgery, diagnosis,
Here are some specific tips, based on
equipment, or lab reports. They can
the latest scientific evidence about what
happen during even the most routine
U.S. Department of Health tasks, such as when a hospital patient
and Human Services
Public Health Service
Medicines When you pick up your medicine
from the pharmacy, ask: Is this the
Make sure that all of your doctors medicine that my doctor prescribed?
know about everything you are tak- A study by the Massachusetts College
ing. This includes prescription and of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences
over-the-counter medicines, and found that 88 percent of medicine
dietary supplements such as vitamins errors involved the wrong drug or the
and herbs. At least once a year, bring wrong dose.
all of your medicines and supplements
with you to your doctor. “Brown bag- If you have any questions about the
ging” your medicines can help you and directions on your medicine labels,
your doctor talk about them and find ask. Medicine labels can be hard to
out if there are any problems. It can understand. For example, ask if “four
also help your doctor keep your records doses daily” means taking a dose every
up to date, which can help you get bet- six hours around the clock or just dur-
ter quality care. ing regular waking hours.
Make sure that all of your doctors
Make sure your doctor knows about Ask your pharmacist for the best
know about everything you are any allergies and adverse reactions device to measure your liquid medi-
you have had to medicines. This can cine. Also, ask questions if you’re not
taking. This includes prescription
help you avoid getting a medicine that sure how to use it. Research shows that
and over-the-counter medicines, can harm you. many people do not understand the
right way to measure liquid medicines.
and dietary supplements such When your doctor writes you a pre- For example, many use household tea-
as vitamins and herbs. scription, make sure you can read it. spoons, which often do not hold a true
If you can’t read your doctor’s handwrit- teaspoon of liquid. Special devices, like
ing, your pharmacist might not be able marked syringes, help people to meas-
to either. ure the right dose. Being told how to
Ask for information about your med- use the devices helps even more.
icines in terms you can understand– Ask for written information about
both when your medicines are pre- the side effects your medicine could
scribed and when you receive them: cause. If you know what might happen,
• What is the medicine for? you will be better prepared if it does–or,
if something unexpected happens
• How am I supposed to take it, and instead. That way, you can report the
for how long? problem right away and get help before
• What side effects are likely? What it gets worse. A study found that writ-
do I do if they occur? ten information about medicines can
help patients recognize problem side
• Is this medicine safe to take with effects and then give that information
other medicines or dietary supple- to their doctor or pharmacist.
ments I am taking?
• What food, drink, or activities
should I avoid while taking this
Hospital Stays urges its members to sign their initials
directly on the site to be operated on
If you have a choice, choose a hospi- before the surgery.
tal at which many patients have the
procedure or surgery you need. Other Steps You Can Take
Research shows that patients tend to
• Speak up if you have questions or
have better results when they are treated
concerns. You have a right to ques-
in hospitals that have a great deal of
tion anyone who is involved with
experience with their condition.
If you are in a hospital, consider ask-
• Make sure that someone, such as
ing all health care workers who have
your personal doctor, is in charge
direct contact with you whether they
of your care. This is especially
have washed their hands.
important if you have many health
Handwashing is an important way to
problems or are in a hospital.
prevent the spread of infections in hos-
pitals. Yet, it is not done regularly or • Make sure that all health profes-
thoroughly enough. A recent study sionals involved in your care have
found that when patients checked important health information
whether health care workers washed about you. Do not assume that
their hands, the workers washed their everyone knows everything they
hands more often and used more soap. need to. If you are having surgery, make
When you are being discharged from • Ask a family member or friend to sure that you, your doctor, and your
the hospital, ask your doctor to be there with you and to be your surgeon all agree and are clear on
explain the treatment plan you will advocate (someone who can help
use at home. This includes learning get things done and speak up for exactly what will be done.
about your medicines and finding out you if you can’t). Even if you think
when you can get back to your regular you don’t need help now, you might
activities. Research shows that at dis- need it later.
charge time, doctors think their
• Know that “more” is not always
patients understand more than they
better. It is a good idea to find out
really do about what they should or
why a test or treatment is needed
should not do when they return home.
and how it can help you. You could
Surgery be better off without it.
If you are having surgery, make sure • If you have a test, don’t assume
that you, your doctor, and your sur- that no news is good news. Ask
geon all agree and are clear on exact- about the results.
ly what will be done. Doing surgery at
• Learn about your condition and
the wrong site (for example, operating
treatments by asking your doctor
on the left knee instead of the right) is
and nurse and by using other reli-
rare. But even once is too often. The
able sources. For example, treat-
good news is that wrong-site surgery is
ment recommendations based on
100 percent preventable. The American
the latest scientific evidence are
Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
available from the National
Guideline Clearinghouse at
(www.guideline.gov). Ask your doc-
tor if your treatment is based on the
For more information about medical
errors, see AHRQ’s Web site at
call the AHRQ Clearinghouse at 1-800-
358-9295 for a Federal report on med-
ical errors (Pub. No. OM00-0004).
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AHRQ Pub. No. 00-P038