Medical Errors: Four basic rules what you can do about it
The definition of a medical error is a subject of debates. According to Wikipedia: “a medical error occurs when a health-care provider chooses an inappropriate method of care or improperly executes an appropriate method of care”. Despite all medical, philosophic or semantic definitions, intuitively we all know: medical errors occur when health providers did not deliver help on time, did not deliver it at all or did it in a wrong way.
My mother was brought to the hospital with the diagnosis of pneumonia. In the evening her temperature reached the mark of 40 degrees. A doctor on duty came and gave my mother a paracetamol injection. There was no effect. The doctor was trying hard to convince me that this is a normal and typical course of pneumonia and that the specialist on this disease would see my mother the following morning.
I had to leave the hospital to come back early in the morning. During the night I got a call from a woman who was sharing the room with my mother. She told me that my mother was just “burning out” so that the room neighbor had to call an emergency. After urgent medical examinations my mother was operated immediately with a diagnosis of purulent appendicitis. Without this woman who relied more on her own observations and common sense and thus doubted the initial diagnosis, my mother would not have survived till the next morning.
My personal case is unfortunately not exceptional. Over 23% of European Union citizens according to WHO report claim to have been directly affected by medical errors, 18% claim to have experienced a serious medical error in a hospital and 11% to have been prescribed wrong medications. Evidence on medical errors shows that 50.0% to 70.2% of such harm could be prevented .Medical errors affect one in 10 patients worldwide . It is interesting that industries with a perceived higher risk such as aviation and nuclear plants have a much better safety record than health care. According to WHO there is one in 1 000000 chance for a traveler being harmed while in an aircraft. In comparison, there is a one in 300 chance of a patient being harmed during health care procedures  i.e. the latter involve over 3.3 thousand greater personal risks (well over three orders of magnitude).
Poor communication between physicians, nurses and patients, improper documentation (e.g., negligence of some of the patients’ symptoms or negative side effects of medical interventions), illegible handwriting, inadequate nurse-to-patient ratios are contributing to the problem. Let us not forget that doctors are also humans: they could be distracted, tired, not that well experienced or properly skilled (especially in specific cases that are countless in such a complex system as a human organism). Not all engineers are leaving colleges with the best grades, why do we reckon that all doctors were good students?
What can we as patients do about medical errors? There are 4 rules I worked for myself.
Rule #1: Ongoing health and medical education is now your almost daily activity.
You do not know how long you or your close relatives have to stay in the hospital and what will happen after. It may turn out that you have to struggle with the disease for many years. There is plenty of information you can find over the Internet today, but it is always good to address professional health resources. I personally quite often use mobile application Health Choices designed by the National Health Services UK (NHS), although I am not a UK based. You can find in this source quite comprehensive information on more than 750 conditions and treatments delivered to your smart phone. There is a similar system in the US developed by the US Center of Disease Control and prevention (CDC). The CDC application provides a mobile public 24/7 access to important health information as regards various chronic diseases, new treatments and research in medicine and healthcare – through scientific articles, popular journals and social media dealing with important health concerns and events throughout the year. Though I am not a US citizen I have still downloaded the CDC mobile application from the Microsoft store and find it quite useful. Both Health Choices and CDC applications are available on Microsoft appstore. I believe one can find similar online services almost in every European country or simply start with Wikipedia.
Rule#2: Go for the second opinion.
One mind is good, but two are better. It is important to have trustworthy relationships with your doctor, but trust should not substitute knowledge. To find a specialist with the profile you need is not an easy task. Normally, the first thing we do is turning to somebody you know. There are, however, some technologies that can help. The mentioned above Health Choices allows the UK citizens to look for a specialist nearby and rate the quality of services they have received. Spanish mobile application, MedCitas, though initially designed as patients’ appointment system, gives a chance to search for professional medical skills and experience required for a particular case. Though local databases (DB) are always richer and easier to access if you are in the same country, there is an attempt to create an international DB. European people travel a lot, and if you happen to land in a hospital abroad it is good to get some background on physicians and available services. Doctoralia is a mobile application where you can search for physicians and medical centers in various countries and get some background on the scope of services they offer. You can even book an appointment if you have found the right specialist. You can also compare the doctors’ background and look how she/he was assessed by the former patients.
If you or your closed one is already in the hospital, it is quite important to have a comprehensive view on the overall conditions of your or your relative’s health. Note that the contemporary mainstream medicine is built on dissecting the entire human body into diseases that can be grouped to form a medical specialty. Each medical professional is focused on repairing a certain part of the body without paying much attention to the integral body status. Such an approach inevitably leads to more and more radical interventions which we, patients, would like to avoid. Ask for the results of a medical consilium. Normally, hospitals are not eager to set up consilums for the sake of costs savings, but in more complicated cases they go for it. Certain advanced clinics (there is a good example in Germany set by Asclepius private chain of hospitals) the “second opinion” process is automated. A patient is invited to a “virtual consilium” with several specialists giving their expert opinion through integrated audio and video systems. Such systems are quite common nowadays. They could be set on Skype, Microsoft Lync or similar systems.
Rule #3: Do not ignore social networks.
No matter how unique or complicated your situation might be, how deep and personal is your pain, you are not alone with it. There are many people like you who have struggled through similar experiences. And when there are thousands and millions, it is already a statistics you may at least consider. Quite accidentally, I recently came across PatientsLikeMe Website. With PatientsLikeMe you can post your profile (or just indicate your areas of interest) and check if there are people who have similar concerns. This tool contains quite a substantial overview of medications and treatment mapped to various diseases verified by a large group of patients. You can also address your problem through the discussion forum and receive an advice from a specialist or a patient like you. Of course there are always heated discussions related to security and privacy, but in this case you yourself is “the master of ceremony”: you are not obliged to disclose what you do not want to.
Rule #4: Do not silence medical error when you witness it.
To report on medical errors is painful and difficult. Not often doctors are open to admit the very fact of a mistake that has damaged a patient’s health. Recently I talked to my neighbor whose brother died as the result of a cardio surgery. What initially seemed like a simple check up on the status of a bypass, turned into an infection that killed this patient. Relatives decided not to report. Typical reaction: what can we do now? Nothing could be changed. But think about others and, who knows, maybe about yourself. We do not want revenge and punishments here. Many medical errors are happening not in isolation, but often as a result of smaller errors that went unnoticed. There are usually several layers of protection and guidance in each hospital to identify an error before it damages a patient. If we as patients do not report on medical errors these layers of the patient safety will be thinner and thinner. Each hospital has a journal where it registers the level of patients’ satisfaction. For some hospitals, it is the essential part of their key performance indicators (KPI) captured by the hospital information system (HIS). Do not be afraid or forgetful to give your feedback to the level of services you have received in the hospital to protect yourself and your beloved ones. In case you feel your complains are going nowhere – share it with the community, use social networks!
- WHO 10 factors to effecting medical errors. http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/patient_safety/en/index.html
- Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_error
- WHO 10 factors to effect medical errors.
- Medical errors prevention and reporting http://www.vantageproed.com/mederrors/mederrorsc.html