How to minimise medical mistakes

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says coronary heart disease is the leading underlying cause of death in Australia, followed by dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Making up the top five are cerebrovascular disease (which includes stroke), lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In the US, the third leading cause of death, behind cancer and heart disease, according to recent research, is medical mistakes. In Australia, medical mistakes are well down the list, but they do occur.

A report released earlier this year said there were almost 100 medical disasters in Australian hospitals in 2015–16, including surgical procedures on the wrong patient and on the wrong body parts that caused “very serious harm” or death.

It’s likely we will all experience a hospital stay at some stage in our lives, more so as we get older. So what can we do to minimise the risk of a medical mistake?

When it comes to medication, the wrong drug or dosage might cause serious problems. Human error, poor training and poor communication can lead to mistakes. Pay attention and ask questions. Keep a list of your medicines or ask a family member or friend to keep one for you.

Antibiotics attack bacteria, but will have no effect on colds and illnesses caused by viruses. If you take them too often when you don’t need to, they might be ineffective when you do need them. Make sure your doctor is on board and don’t ask for antibiotics if you don’t need them.

It’s no fun being in hospital, but don’t rush home before you’re ready. Studies show that people who go home too quickly, especially after surgery, are more likely to get seriously ill again because of related problems. But you don’t want to stay too long, either. That’s linked to higher rates of infection and other problems.

The wrong surgery, surgery on the wrong person – it happens. It seems obvious, but make sure your healthcare professionals know who you are and why you’re there. It’s one time when being pushy is smart.

Post surgery, tell your doctor if something doesn’t seem right. While it’s rare, items have been left inside a patient’s body. Be alert to unexpected severe pain, swelling, fever, nausea and changes in your bowel movements.

Most of us have had blood tests, scans and assorted medical procedures. Don’t assume your doctor’s office will call you if there is a problem. Check back for the results. Human error, bad communication and poor planning can cause delays. And delays can be costly.

When it comes to selecting a hospital – if you are lucky enough to be able to do that – a good resource is the MyHospitals website, a commonwealth department site run by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The institute receives data about every patient treated in an Australian hospital, both public and private. Using that data, you can assess safety and quality, as well as emergency department performances.

In a nutshell, it’s always wise to speak up. If you have questions or concerns, ask. Everyone is busy, but you have the right to question everyone involved in your care.

Have you experienced an avoidable problem during a hospital stay? Are you confident about asking questions of health professionals?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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