How to Avoid Medical Errors

Doctors can make mistakes, especially in today's rushed health-care atmosphere. Here's what you can do to get the best health care.
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Vickie Wakefield, an 82-year-old suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, needed surgery. So her daughter, Mary Wakefield, took her to the hospital for the medical procedure.

When it was over, the surgeon called Mary to say that the operation on her mother's right wrist went just fine. There was just one problem: The surgery should have been performed on her mother's left wrist.

The medical mishap occurred in September 1999, while Mary Wakefield -- a professor of nursing at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia, and an expert on health care policy -- was helping to write To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System. This report, published by the Institute of Medicine later that year, describes the sad frequency at which patients in the American medical system fall victim to mistakes.

To Err Is Human revealed that mistakes made in hospitals cause 44,000 to 98,000 deaths in the United States each year. Even using the conservative estimate, that makes medical errors the nation's eighth-leading cause of death. That's more deaths than breast cancer, car accidents, or AIDS.

Infamous examples of medical errors have made headlines in the last decade. Betsy Lehman, a health reporter from the Boston Globe, died in 1994 from an overdose of chemotherapy at a Boston hospital. A year later, a hospital in Tampa amputated the wrong leg of Willie King, a diabetic. The Institute of Medicine wants to reduce the incidence of errors like these by half within five years. Congress may establish a national agency that would collect information about medical errors and recommend how they can be avoided.

But if you need medical treatment tomorrow, you don't have time to wait for the system to clean up its act. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself, and become a better all-around health-care consumer.

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