Safe health care

To err is human, the saying goes. But to
err in medical care can be devastating. Medical errors are one of the nation’s leading causes of death and injury.
The Institute of Medicine estimates that as
many as 44,000 to 98,000 people die each
year in U.S. hospitals as the result of these

“The number of people that die from
medical errors is comparable to and may
even exceed those that die as a result of
motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer or
AIDS,” says Eugene Sun, M.D., M.B.A., vice
president of medical affairs for
HealthAmerica. “There is a tremendous
impact to families who lose loved ones,
and the direct and indirect costs are in the
billions of dollars. And we all pay some of
the price.”

Smart Business spoke to Sun about how
you and your employees can play a role in
health care safety.

We hear that most medicine errors involve
the wrong drug or the wrong dose. How can
we avoid medical errors from prescription

Make sure that all the physicians who
may be caring for you know about every
medicine and supplement you are taking.
This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and any vitamins and
herbals. At least once a year, bring all of
your medicines and supplements with you
to your primary care doctor. Always ask
for written information about the side
effects your medicine could cause.

When your doctor writes you a prescription, make sure you can read your doctor’s
handwriting. If you can’t read your doctor’s
handwriting, your pharmacist might not be
able to either. Also make sure you understand what each medicine is for.

If you have any questions about the directions on your medicine labels, ask.
Medicine labels can be hard to understand.
For example, ask if ‘four doses daily’
means taking a dose every six hours
around the clock or taking it just during
regular waking hours.

If you take any liquid medications, ask
your pharmacist for the best device to
measure it, and make sure you know how
to use it. Research shows that many people
do not understand the right way to measure liquid medicines. For example, many
use household teaspoons, which often do
not hold a true teaspoon of liquid.

What can we do to make hospital stays

If you are in a hospital, consider asking
all health care workers who have direct
contact with you whether they have
washed their hands. Hand-washing is not
done regularly or thoroughly enough.

When you are being discharged from the
hospital, ask your doctor to explain the
treatment plan you will use at home.
Doctors think their patients understand
more than they really do about what they
should or should not do when they return

What are some other steps we should take?

Always be involved in your health care.

The most important way you can help to
prevent errors is to be an active member of
your health care team. Research shows
that patients who are involved with their
health care tend to have better outcomes.

Speak up if you have questions or concerns. You have a right to question anyone
who is involved with your care. Make sure
that all health professionals involved have
important health information about you.
Do not assume that everyone knows everything they need to.

If you have a test, don’t assume that no
news is good news. Ask about the results.
Learn about your condition and treatments
by asking your doctor and nurse and by
using other reliable sources. For example,
treatment recommendations are available
from the National Guidelines Clearing-house at

Ask a family member or friend to be there
with you and to be your advocate. Even if
you think you don’t need help now, you
might need it later.

For the full list of tips from the Agency
for Healthcare Research and Quality
(AHRQ), visit
20tips.pdf for a patient fact sheet titled ‘20
Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors.’

The AHRQ has another patient fact sheet
especially for children. Called ‘20 Tips to
Help Prevent Medical Errors in Children,’ it
provides practical steps that parents can
take to protect their children with prescription medications, hospital stays, surgery and general medical care. Find it at

Source: Redspring Communications Inc.

EUGENE SUN, M.D., M.B.A., is vice president of medical affairs
for HealthAmerica. Reach him at [email protected] or (412) 553-7549.