Surgeon preparation
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Mistakes Do Happen

Medical error is the nation’s third leading cause of death, behind only cancer and heart disease, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins. They estimate that it causes more than 250,000 deaths each year. You can do a few things to help your medical team avoid some of the most common ones.

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Medication review
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If you get the wrong drug or amount, it can cause serious problems. Some are powerful, and it can be tricky to give them in a dose that’s both safe and effective. A lack of training, human error, and poor communication can all lead to mistakes. Pay attention, ask questions, and keep an updated list of your medicines so your doctor knows about any other drugs you take.

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Prescription drugs
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Misuse of Antibiotics

These drugs attack bacteria, so they won’t help the common cold, the flu, or other things caused by a virus. And if you take them too often when you don’t need to, they might stop working for you. It’s important that your doctor prescribes them for the right reason, and at the correct dose. Don’t ask for them if you don’t need them.

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Senior patient
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Hospital Stay: Too Long or Too Short

It’s no fun being in a hospital, but you shouldn’t be rushed 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. Be honest and clear with your doctor about your symptoms so you can get the treatment you need, then get home and stay there.

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Surgical procedure
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Wrong Site Surgery

The most dramatic example of this is when a surgeon takes off the wrong limb, but it also can happen if they operate on the wrong organ or even the wrong person. The layout of the surgery room, distractions, and running behind schedule can all lead to this. One thing you can do is make sure the right area on your body is marked before surgery.

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Surgical tools
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What’s Left Behind

It's rare, but it's possible for the surgical team to accidentally leave something like a sponge or instrument inside your body. This can lead to serious internal problems, including an abscess (pus or infected fluid inside inflamed tissue), a blockage, small tears, infection, or inflammation. Signs of these issues include severe pain, swelling, fever, nausea, and changes in your bowel movements. Tell your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms after surgery.

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Blood test
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Delay in Treatment

This is when you don’t get the medical care you need when you’re supposed to. It can happen during diagnosis -- like if you're not scheduled for a test in a timely way, the results are late, or there’s a misdiagnosis -- or during treatment after you find out what’s wrong. Human error, bad communication, and poor planning, among other things, can cause delays. If you don’t hear back from your doctor, don’t assume things are OK. Call to get your results and ask about next steps.

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patient bedside
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Bed Rest

Within the first 10 days, you start to lose muscle mass and bone density. If you’re in bed longer than that, it also can affect your heart, lungs, and brain, and cause bed sores. That’s why many doctors want you up and about as soon as possible -- scientists are working on safe ways to get people moving with all kinds of conditions. 

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Patient counsel
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What You Can Do: Don’t Assume

Just because you told one doctor what drugs you take, that doesn’t mean all your doctors know. Tell your care providers -- several times if necessary -- if you take medication or have bad drug reactions or other health problems. It’s also good to write them down and make sure a loved one knows as well. They can get mixed up, lost, or just plain forgotten in the communication between different health care professionals.

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web searching
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What You Can Do: Your Homework

Ask your doctor about your condition and treatments, and find reliable online sources to learn more about them. It’s important to understand how drugs or procedures will affect you. And don’t hesitate to ask why they’re recommending something.

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Medication review
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What You Can Do: Speak Up

If you have question or concerns, don’t be afraid to ask. You have the right to question anyone involved in your care. You may help your care providers avoid a mistake that could set your health back.

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Patient with doctor
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What You Can Do: Pick a ‘Point Person’

You can choose a health care professional, such as your primary care doctor, to coordinate your care. It can help cut down on confusion and mistakes, especially if you have multiple health problems and doctors or are in the hospital. 

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woman on phone
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What You Can Do: Call a Friend

Get a friend or family member to come with you when you see doctors or have a hospital stay to help keep track of your care. You may feel in command of all the details now, but that may change as your condition and treatment progress, especially if you have surgery. 

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hospital tour
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What You Can Do: Choose the Right Hospital

If you’ll be at a hospital for a procedure or testing that’s planned, take the time to read up on the facility. If you have a choice, choose one that has lots of experience with your condition.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 03/08/2019 Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 08, 2019


Thinkstock Photos


American Family Physician: “Evaluation and Management of Intestinal Obstruction.”

ECRI Institute: “Joint Commission Updates Sentinel Event Statistics.”

Hippokratia: “A case of surgical instrument left in the abdomen and taken out of the transverse colon.”

Johns Hopkins University: “Intra-Abdominal Abscess,” “Johns Hopkins study suggests medical errors are third-leading cause of death in U.S.”

National Institutes of Health: “Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurse; Chapter 10 Fall and Injury Prevention,” “Peritonitis,” “Preventing Suicide Among Inpatients,” “Retained surgical sponges, needles and instruments,” “Wrong site surgery! How can we stop it?” “The impact of extended bed rest on the musculoskeletal system in the critical care environment.”

The Joint Commission: “Preventing delays in treatment.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: “20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors: Patient Fact Sheet.”

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 08, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.