Everyone is human—including your doctor. Unfortunately, that means that even the folks in white coats make mistakes sometimes. But here’s the scary thing: A new study from Johns Hopkins University shows patients are rarely informed about medication errors. In addition, while men and women in Intensive Care Units (ICU) are most likely to experience harmful mistakes, they’re the least likely to be told about them.
Researchers looked at a database of more than a million medication errors from 1999 to 2005, voluntarily disclosed from 537 hospitals. Prevalent mistakes mostly involved omissions, like failing to administer medication to a patient. The most costly errors had to do with incorrectly dosing a patient and problems with IV lines. About 6.6 percent of the errors occurred in ICU, while the rest happened in non-ICU areas of hospitals. While blunders didn’t hurt the patient 98 percent of the time, the rate of harmful errors doubled in the fragile Intensive Care Unit.
Worse still, hospitals only took action half the time just after a mistake, and only let families in on the error in 2 percent of cases. “What surprised us most was what we do about [errors] regardless of where they happen, at least in the immediate time around when they occur,” says lead researcher Asad Latif, M.D., assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins. “We need to really look into what the consequences of medication errors is in our hospitals.”
While Latif acknowledges that hospitals may have taken corrective action after the error was reported to the database studied, he says the resolutions need to happen faster. “Many of the actions we looked at, such as informing the involved staff and the patients and their caregivers, would best be taken in the immediate aftermath of any mistake, when it’s still fresh,” he says.
You can play a role in making sure you get the necessary updates regarding mistakes, and also prevent them before they happen. Here’s how:
Do a Double-Check
Before you take new meds in a hospital setting, ask your doc the specifics of what you’re getting. The study revealed most mistakes happen during the administration phase, so asking will both inform you and remind your doctor to look twice at what he’s doling out. “This can act as a final double-check,” Latif says.
Ask After a Change
Any environmental changes—you move floors, find yourself dealing with a new doctor or start a new medication—should prompt you to ask medication questions again. For instance, ask your doc what dose you should be getting, and for how long, Latif advises.
Write Down Home Meds
Even if you’re not hospitalized and don’t plan to be, continuously keep track of all pills you’re taking to keep physicians accurately updated in an emergency. “Keep home medications written down, along with their dose and timings, to guarantee that hospitals get them right if they are admitted,” Latif says.
Don’t Become Paranoid
Fortunately, medication errors are few and far between, and even fewer result in harm to the patient. Latif says not to become alarmed if your doc informs you of a mistake, but you should “inquire about the nature of the error, and what was done as a result of it.” Keep notes to help you to remember exactly what happened, in case you need to ask further questions about it later.
This story originally appeared on WomensHealthMag.com.
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