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Common Problems Patients Face in the Hospital

Understand your hospital risks and ask these vital questions -- to keep those risks in check.
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WebMD Feature

It's a fact of life: people checking into the hospital face risks. Expecting to get better, some actually wind up getting worse.

We've all heard the horror stories about hospital risks after surgery. There's the danger of medical complications, like bleeding or infection. Then there are the human errors, like getting the wrong drug or dosage. "Even though you've got a lot of well-trained people in a hospital working very hard, they're still people," says Fran Griffin, RRT, MPA, a director at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Mass. "And people sometimes make mistakes."

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All these hospital risks can seem far beyond your control. It can leave you feeling pretty helpless.

But experts say that's not the case. "Patients are just too passive when they check into the hospital," says Peter B. Angood, MD, vice president and chief patient safety officer of the Joint Commission in Oakbridge Terrace, Ill. According to Angood and other experts, taking an active role in your health care can reduce many of these hospital risks. While you might feel out of control when you go into the hospital, you're really not.

So what can you do to cut your risks? Here's a list of the six top hospital risks and -- more importantly -- what you can do to avoid them.

Hospital Risk No. 1: Medication Errors

"Far and away, the most serious hospital risk is a medication error," says Carolyn Clancy, MD, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) in Rockville, Md. "All it takes is for someone to miss a decimal point and you could have a life-threatening mistake."

A 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine estimated that every year, there are 450,000 injuries resulting from medication errors in hospitals, and perhaps many more that are unreported. What's especially frightening about these hospital risks is they "seem" completely beyond your control. How would you even know what medicines you need, or how much, or how often? How can you stop a doctor's poor handwriting on a prescription from being misread by a pharmacist or nurse?

But there are things you can do to reduce this hospital risk. Before surgery, you need to make sure that your doctor, your surgeon, and everyone else involved in your care know about every single medicine -- whether prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal supplement -- that you use. To make it easier, you can just stick all of your medicines in a bag and bring them to the hospital.

Then, after surgery, ask questions. When a nurse comes to give you medicine, ask what it is and why you need it, says Dale Bratzler, DO, MPH, medical director at the Oklahoma Foundation for Medical Quality in Oklahoma City. Make sure the nurse checks your ID bracelet against the name on the prescription.

"If you ever feel like something's wrong, you have to speak up," says Griffin. She's talked to nurses who said that they were about to administer the wrong medication or dose and were only stopped because the patient asked them to double-check." Just by saying something, they averted what could have been very serious medication errors," Griffin says.

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