Plus, how to protect yourself from deadly errors

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Updated: May 04, 2016

Medical mistakes are the third biggest killer of Americans, after heart disease and cancer, according to The BMJ. Researchers analyzed death certificate data from studies going back twenty years and found that about 251,454 people, or three percent of the population, die each year as a result of medical errors.

But while many of us were surprised by this news, doctors were not. "This is one of the biggest issues in healthcare today and clearly something that's extremely important," says Anton Bilchik, M.D., chief of medicine and chief of gastrointestinal research at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. (Related: Here are The Diseases Doctors Misdiagnose the Most.)

By far the most common medical mistakes are due to an error with a prescription medication, like giving the wrong drug or using the wrong dosage, Bilchik explains. Drugs are meant to be used in a very specific way under specific circumstances and deviating from that at all, especially by accident, can put a patient at risk. Surgical mistakes are the second most common, he adds, although they're often the ones we hear the most about. (Like the time a doctor removed the wrong leg or left a sponge inside a patient for years.)

And when it comes to protecting yourself from this serious health threat, patients and doctors share responsibility, says Bilchik. On the medical side, the most common new protective measure is the switch to all electronic health records, which take out some human error, like bad handwriting, and can flag potential problems with drug interactions or existing conditions. One recent survey found that 75 percent of doctors said that electronic health records helped them provide better care.​ Bilchik adds that almost all surgeons will now insist on consulting with a patient right before surgery to make sure everyone is clear on what exactly will happen. (Interestingly, we caught him for this interview right after he'd come out of a pre-scheduled lecture on reducing medical mistakes, a practice that's becoming increasingly common in hospitals everywhere.)

But there is a lot you can do to protect yourself from medical mistakes too. "The most important thing is to feel comfortable talking to your doctor and asking questions," says Bilchik. "Ask 'what are the chances of mistakes for this?' and 'what procedures do you have in place to reduce mistakes?" He adds that you can also look up the track record for your doctor through your state's records.

One more thing: Always double check prescriptions. Bilchik says it's totally fine to make sure you're receiving the right drug and dosage by asking a pharmacist, nurse, or doctor. (Have you seen this app that compares prescriptions for you with advice from real doctors?) Then, it's up to you to make sure you're following their directions to the letter, he adds.



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