Navigating the Health Care System

Advice Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy

Former AHRQ Director Carolyn Clancy, M.D., prepared brief, easy-to-understand advice columns for consumers to help navigate the health care system. They address important issues such as how to recognize high-quality health care, how to be an informed health care consumer, and how to choose a hospital, doctor, and health plan.

You don't have to read medical journals to know that serious, even deadly, medical errors take place too often when people get health care.

Just last month, many Americans were shocked when they heard the infant twins of actor Dennis Quaid and his wife were accidentally given a dosage of a drug that was 1,000 times stronger than what was prescribed. (The infants were in the hospital receiving treatment for an infection.)

The twins and another patient who also got too much of the drug are doing better, according to news reports. The hospital is investigating why the mistake happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

As terrible as this experience was, these patients were luckier than many other victims of medical errors. Between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die each year in hospitals as a result of medical errors, according to a major study. That makes errors the eighth leading cause of death, ahead of motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer, and AIDS.

Most of the time we hear about medical errors happening in hospitals. But they can occur anywhere you get health services or drugs, including doctors' offices, clinics, surgery centers, pharmacies, or your home.

The number of people who die or are injured from medical errors is shocking. Many of these errors could have been prevented. Hospitals and doctors are taking steps to make sure that health care is safe. We are getting better, but we still have a lot of work to do.

Fortunately, you can take steps to reduce the chance of a medical error happening to you or a loved one. My agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), has developed a fact sheet for patients that explains what you can do to prevent medical errors.

The most important thing you can do is to be an active member of your or your family's health care team. This means asking your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist questions and speaking up if you have concerns.

AHRQ's 20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors gives advice on how to reduce the chance of mistakes occurring when you get a new prescription or health care services. We recommend you:

  • Make sure all of your doctors know every medicine you are taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines as well as vitamins and herbs.
  • Make sure your doctor knows about any allergies and reactions you have had to drugs.
  • Ask for information about your medicine in words you can understand. Ask questions when your doctor writes a prescription for you. Talk to your pharmacist when you pick up your prescription.
  • Choose a hospital, if possible, where many patients have had the same procedure or surgery you need.
  • Make sure all the health care workers involved in your care are familiar with your health information.
  • Consider asking all health care workers who touch you whether they have washed their hands.
  • Ask a friend or family member to be with you in the hospital and speak up for you if you can't.

Medical errors can happen anywhere and to anyone. Being an active, involved member of your health care team is an important way to protect yourself.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

More Information

AHRQ Podcast
Steps Health Care Consumers Can Take to Avoid Medical Errors  (Transcript)  Podcast Help

AHRQ
20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors
Fact sheet for consumers on how to reduce medical errors.
http://www.ahrq.gov/patients-consumers/care-planning/errors/20tips.html

Institute of Medicine, National Academies Press
To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System
Report on improving safety in health care.
http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=9728&page=1

Page last reviewed December 2007
Internet Citation: Where Medical Errors Occur and Steps You Can Take to Avoid Them. December 2007. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/121807.html