Preventing Medical Mistakes


A patient can do a lot to prevent mistakes in their medical care. You generally can spend a lot more time examining the situation than your over-worked medical advisors can. There are several basic strategies to cut down mistakes overall:

  • Get educated: Learning about your condition and its treatment is the best way to prevent an error.
  • Get involved: Be assertive about your right to be part of the decision process for your medical care.
  • Ask questions: Make sure you understand everything and ensure that you have been told all your options.
  • Tell your doctor everything: all symptoms (even if you think it's unrelated), other prescription medications, other over-the-counter medications, other alternative treatments, previous diseases, prior surgery, and so on. Don't assume it's not important just because your doctor did not ask.
  • Research past records: research the record of your doctor and hospital. Find out how much experience they have with your condition.

Preventing surgery mistakes: Although not all surgical risks can be avoided, there are certain ways to reduce the risk of an error.

  • Ask staff to wash hands
  • Ask staff to wash gloves (or preferably change gloves): medical staff may wear gloves to protect themselves, but not always remember to wash or change the gloves to protect patients.
  • Have an observer during the surgery
  • Research the surgery record of your doctor
  • Research the surgery record of the hospital
  • Ask if your doctor will perform the entire operation
  • Ask if there are options to surgery

Non-preventable medical mistakes: Not all medical errors are preventable. The entire medical industry has been trying to prevent and minimize them for years, without enough success. As a patient, you only have limited control over your health care. For some situations, such as surgery, you are literally in someone else's hands.

  • Surgical slips: even the best doctors will sometimes make simple mistakes in surgery. Surgeons are human. The only way to minimize this risk is to ensure your surgeon has a good record.
  • Lab test errors (false positives, false negatives): all laboratory tests have known situations when they can be incorrect. Some tests are more accurate than others, but all have a slight risk of returning the wrong result. It is difficult to avoid these small risks. However, if your diagnosis does seem to rest strongly on a particular test result, then perhaps it is worthwhile to repeat the same test, or to ask your doctor if there is a second confirmatory test that can be used.
  • Adverse reaction to medication without previous history: for example, the only way to know if you have a penicillin allergy is to have penicillin, so it's not possible to avoid the reaction if you don't know about it yet. However, medical mistakes do occur when a patient has a known allergy or intolerance and the doctor still prescribes the treatment, either through oversight or lack of information about the patient's history.

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