Legal Update: What You Need to Know About Medical Mistakes and How They Can Hurt You
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on June 15th, 2012
Sometimes the serious injuries that medical patients undergo happen after they’re admitted to the hospital.
Medical mistakes, the kind that happen when a doctor accidentally treats the wrong patient in a busy emergency room or leaves a surgical instrument inside a patient’s body during surgery, occur all too frequently in the United States.
The problem is, that unlike everyday mistakes where you make a wrong turn on a highway or bring home the wrong flavor of ice cream from the store, medical mistakes made by health care workers and doctors can kill you.
And it’s not as difficult to imagine as you might think.
In a recent report on CNN.com, senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen reported on 25 kinds of medical mistakes that happen in medical facilities, as part of the news network’s “Empowered Patient” series.
One segment, titled “10 Shocking Medical Mistakes,” outlined 10 of the most common mistakes and how they can be prevented from happening using some basic procedural changes and common sense steps that could be easily implemented.
Among the problems are doctors who have dirty hands when they treat patients, doctors who conduct surgeries on the wrong body part and medical tests that can cause bald spots, the network reported.
“Medical errors kill more than a quarter million people every year in the United States and injure millions,” CNN reported. “Add them all up and ‘you have probably the third leading cause of death’ in the country,” Dr. Peter Pronovost, an anesthesiologist and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told CNN.
That’s a lot of patients.
“When you’re a patient, you trust you’re in good hands, but even the best doctor or nurse can make a mistake on you or someone you love,” the CNN story reported. “Mistakes are happening every day in every hospital in the country that we’re just not catching,” Dr. Albert Wu, an internist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told CNN.
To prevent patient injuries and complications, CNN noted 10 typical medical mistakes and offers advice on how patients can become more involved in their own health care so they can avoid becoming a victim:
1. Medical teams treating the wrong patient who might have a similar name can happen when “hospital staff fails to verify a patient’s identity,” according to CNN. To prevent such errors you or a family member should “make sure the staff checks your entire name, date of birth and barcode on your wrist band” before any medical procedure in a hospital.
2. Surgical tools being left inside a patient’s body can occur when the “surgical staff miscounts (or fails to count) equipment used inside a patient during an operation,” according to CNN. “If you have unexpected pain, fever or swelling after surgery, ask if you might have a surgical instrument inside you.”
3. Patients who are suffering from dementia are sometimes prone to wandering and “may become trapped … and die from hypothermia or dehydration,” CNN reported. “If your loved one sometimes wanders, consider a GPS tracking bracelet.”
4. Sometimes “con artists pretend to be doctors” and the result is medical treatments that make patients even sicker when they arrived, according to CNN. “Confirm online that your physician is licensed” before treatment begins.
5. Crowded, busy hospital emergency rooms mean that very sick patients often wait to be treated, causing their pain and suffering to increase and potentially complicating their overall treatment. That kind of “ER waiting game” happens when overcrowded hospitals don’t have enough beds, according to CNN. To prevent that, call ahead. “Doctors listen to other doctors, so on your way to the hospital call your physician and ask them to call the emergency room,” CNN suggests.
6. Be aware of the possibility of air bubbles in the blood if a hole in a patient’s chest isn’t sealed airtight after a chest tube is removed, CNN reports. Such air bubbles “get sucked into the wound and cut off blood supply to the patient’s lungs, heart, kidneys and brain. Left uncorrected the patient dies.” To prevent such problems, patients who are treated with a chest tube should “ask how you should be positioned when the line comes out.”
7. Surgery on the wrong body part can occur when “a patient’s chart is incorrect, or a surgeon misreads it, or surgical draping obscures marks that denote the correct side of the operation,” according to CNN. To protect yourself from such a mistake, “make sure you reaffirm with the nurse and the surgeon the correct body part and side of your operation.”
8. Dirty hands spread infection and it can happen when doctors and nurses don’t wash their hands. “It may be uncomfortable to ask, but make sure doctors and nurses wash their hands before they touch you, even if they’re wearing gloves,” CNN reports.
9. Medical tubes to various life-saving devices, such as chest tubes and feeding tubes “can look a lot alike,” causing patients to receive improper and potentially deadly treatment, CNN reports. To avoid such errors, “ask the staff to trace every tube back to the point of origin so the right medicine goes to the right place” if you are fitted with tubes as part of your treatment.
10. Waking up during surgery is not a good thing, but it can occur if a patient isn’t given enough anesthesia. “The brain stays awake while the muscles stay frozen,” CNN reports. “Most patients aren’t in any pain but some feel every poke, prod and cut.” To prevent such possibilities, “ask your surgeon if you need to be put asleep or if a local anesthetic might work just as well” before your surgery is scheduled.
Medical errors can cause great pain, anguish and long-term side effects for patients, as well as possible death. They are a very serious matter.
You have a role in preventing such tragedies from happening to you or a loved on by making sure that you take an active role in your medical care. That means being an advocate for a loved one as they deal with their medical treatment or having a loved one act as your health care advocate if you are receiving treatment.
That means asking lots of pertinent questions and getting satisfactory answers from medical professionals before allowing treatments to go on.
That also means knowing your rights as a patient so that the proper care is given at the proper time.
Insurance companies can also fight patients as they seek care for medical issues and advocacy is also a prime defense against such complications and roadblocks.
Often, though, medical errors will require experienced, compassionate and competent legal advice and help so that patients and their families can receive compensation after they are seriously injured by medical facilities and staff members.
We here at MyPhillyLawyer stand ready to assist you and provide compassionate care in the event that you or a loved one is seriously injured due to a medical mistake. Call us for a consultation and tell us your story.
When Winning Matters Most, call MyPhillyLawyer.