Being An Advocate For Your Loved One

Some practical steps you can follow to make sure that your loved one gets the best possible medical care.

20 Things You Can Do To Help Prevent Medical Errors

Medical errors can occur anywhere in the healthcare system—hospitals, clinics, outpatient surgery centers, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, pharmacies, even patients’ homes. While government agencies, insurance companies, and health care providers are all working together to make the system safer for everyone, it’s important for caregivers to become part of this critical equation.

1. The single most important way you can help prevent errors is to be an active member of your loved one’s healthcare team. That means taking part in every decision about your loved one’s care. Research shows that patients and caregivers who are more involved with their care tend to get better results.


2. Make sure that your loved one’s doctors know about all medications that your loved one is taking. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and dietary supplements such as vitamins and herbs. If your loved one begins taking any new medication or supplements, inform the doctor so that he or she can keep your loved one’s records up-to-date.

3. Make sure the doctor knows about any allergic reactions your loved one may have had to medicines.

4. When the doctor writes a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can’t read the doctor’s handwriting, a pharmacist might not be able to either.

5. Ask your loved one’s doctor and pharmacist to explain information about medicines in terms you can understand.

  • What is the medicine for?
  • How is my loved one supposed to take it, and for how long?
  • What side effects are likely? What do I do if they occur?
  • Is this medicine safe to take with other medicines or dietary supplements?
  • What food, drink, or activities should be avoided while taking this medicine?

6. When picking up a prescription from the pharmacy, make sure that it is the medicine that the doctor prescribed. A study by the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences found that 88 percent of medicine errors involved the wrong drug or the wrong dose.

7. If you have any questions about the directions on medicine labels, ask. Labels can be hard to understand. Does “four doses daily” mean taking a dose every 6 hours round the clock, or just during regular waking hours?

8. Many people don’t measure liquid medicines properly. A household teaspoon, for example, may not hold a true teaspoon of liquid. Special devices, like marked syringes, help people to measure the right dose. Ask the pharmacist for the best device.

9. Ask for written information about the side effects your loved one’s medicine could cause. If you know what might happen, you’ll be better prepared if it does.

Hospital Stays

10. If you have a choice, choose a hospital where many patients have had the procedure or surgery your loved one needs. Patients tend to have better results when they are treated in hospitals where the staff is experienced with their particular condition.

11. One your loved one is in a hospital, consider asking all health care workers who have direct contact with him or her whether they have washed their hands. Hand washing is an important way to prevent the spread of infections in hospitals.

12. When your loved one is being discharged from the hospital, ask the doctor to explain the treatment plan that he or she will use at home. This includes learning about medicines and finding out when your loved one can get back to his or her regular activities.

13. When a loved one is having surgery, make sure that your loved one, the doctor, and the surgeon all agree on exactly what will be done. Wrong-site surgery (for example, operating on the left knee instead of the right) is rare, but even once is too often.

14. Speak up if you have questions or concerns. You have a right to question anyone who is involved with your loved one’s care.

15. Make sure that someone you trust, such as your loved one’s personal doctor, is in charge of the care.

16. Make sure that all health professionals involved in the care have important health information about your loved one. Don’t assume that everyone on the healthcare team knows everything they need to.

17. Speak up for your loved one if he or she can’t.

18. It’s a good idea to find out why a test or treatment is needed and how it can help. Your loved one could be better off without it.

19. If your loved one had a test, and you haven’t heard back from the doctor, don’t assume that no news is good news. Ask about the results.

20. Learn about your loved one’s condition and treatment by asking the doctor and by using other reliable sources. Ask the doctor if your loved one’s treatment is based on the latest medical studies and evidence.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from 20 Tips To Help Prevent Medical Errors, AHRQ Publication No. 00-PO38, developed by the United States Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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