Want to Help Prevent Medical Errors? Advocate for Yourself.

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All kinds of annoying things have happened since we last met. My computer crashed. Twice. (It was down from last Thursday until late last night.) My granddaughter almost missed her flight to South Carolina, but it wasn’t her fault: She fell asleep because she’d been up all night. The hotel my husband and I were staying in Sunday night didn’t have our room ready when he went to check in, so they upgraded us to a suite. As I told guest services, if that was an upgrade, I’d hate to have seen the original room.

At least none was life-threatening (although being computerless for a few days can feel like it). When “stuff” that’s medical-related happens, that may not be the case.

We expect our health-care professionals to be mistake-free. To always know exactly what to do. To take the time to carefully explain things to us in words we can understand.

However, as the old saying goes, “Pobody’s nerfect.” (Oh, let me count the ways…) I know I’ve had my share of experiences with imperfection. You probably have, too.

Recently, I ran across a brochure issued by The Joint Commission (formerly The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) that urges you to “Speak Up” when receiving health care to help avoid errors. Speak up if you don’t understand something; speak up to ask about safety; speak up if you believe you are about to get the wrong medicine; and speak up if you believe you’ve been confused with another patient.

That’s just the beginning, but I’ll take those on and see how far it gets me.

Back in the day, I was afraid to let on I didn’t know something or didn’t understand something, but I’ve gotten over that. If you have the same problem, you should, too. If I sense any hesitation, I just laugh and say, “Sorry: I forgot to remember to go to medical school.”

It’s my body and it’s my life and I need to know how your plans are going to affect me. If the person who is talking to me isn’t forthcoming, I ask to see somebody who is willing to explain things to me in words I can understand. Some people have problems explaining things in an understandable way. Some don’t have the patience. It doesn’t make them bad people: It just means you need to meet with somebody else. Repeat the first sentence of this paragraph to them if you need to.


The writing on my left leg from my last surgery has almost worn off. An incision from a previous surgery had opened up and I had reached a point where it could be cleaned out well and restitched. First, a nurse wrote “this one” with an arrow pointing down on my leg. Then, when I was in the holding area of the surgical suite, my doctor appeared, took out a pen and began to write on my leg. “I’ve already been written on,” I said.

“I have to indicate that I’ve read it,” he explained as he initialed my leg beside the original direction.

Hey, no complaints from me! I especially liked the fact that the doctor had to visibly note that he’d read the original.


“What’s in the bag?” I asked the person who was about to hook me up to an IV antibiotic. Turns out it contained an antibiotic I am allergic to.


If I hadn’t asked, I might have been in some real trouble. Never, never — and I repeat NEVER! — take a medicine until you understand what it’s for, what it does, and if it will interact with another medicine you are taking. It wouldn’t hurt to know what the side effects are. I once met a woman who was recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and was gaining weight no matter how hard she tried to lose. Turns out her doctor had prescribed a medicine that usually causes weight gain. And was chastising her for gaining weight. Even he didn’t know about that common side effect.

I know you all have access to a computer. Key your drug’s name into a browser and look it up yourself. It can be interesting. A couple of times recently, I’ve found that a drug that had been prescribed could interact with something else I was taking. That was before the prescriptions had been submitted to the pharmacy. Pharmacists also will check for drug interactions.


“I’m here to take you down,” said the young man with the wheelchair.

“Down to where?” I asked.


I wasn’t having dialysis: He’d confused me with another patient. It took a little arguing back and forth, but he finally realized he’d gone to the wrong room.

Once I got to the dialysis center, they would have known I was in the wrong place. But that might not have been true had I been taken for, oh, an unneeded amputation (obviously in a place that doesn’t require instructions being written and initialed on your actual body part) or something.

Remember that you play a role in preventing medical errors, too. You have a need to know what’s going on, and you also have a right to know.

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