To err may be human, but medical mistakes go beyond simple error

You trusted a health care professional with your life or the life of someone you love, only to discover that through recklessness, laziness or even just careless oversight, that trust was sorely misplaced. The worst part is that this then leaves you to shoulder the cost, financially, emotionally and physically.

A successfully litigated malpractice suit can at least address the financial aspect of medical errors, and -- to a point -- can help compensate for pain, suffering and other non-economic aspects. However, nobody wants to go through such an ordeal in the first place. While it's always the medical staff's responsibility to prevent mistakes, is there anything you can do to avoid becoming a victim?

Ways to lessen your risk

Medical errors occur for a variety of reasons -- from a doctor performing an operation on too little sleep to a hurried, careless nurse doing a sloppy job of a procedure -- but often, mistakes result from the complexity of the modern health care system and misunderstandings stemming from a lack of communication. Sometimes, the most productive thing you can do to protect yourself is to become informed and proactive about each and every health care decision.

At the hospital for treatment or surgery

If you have to remain in the hospital for an extended stay or are having surgery, consider:

  • Ask all health care staff to wash their hands before they touch you.
  • Discuss your surgery in detail ahead of time with your doctor and surgeon to make sure everyone agrees on the exact procedure you will undergo.
  • Asking your doctor to explain, in easy-to-understand terms, the treatment plan you will need to follow after your discharge from the hospital.

Handwashing is essential to preventing the spread of potentially fatal infections in hospitals. While rare, wrong-site surgery (such as when a surgeon removes the right kidney instead of the left) should not happen even once. Discussing the details right before the surgery can go a long way to preventing such a serious mistake.

When taking medication

It is important for both you and your health care providers to know all the medications you are on, including over-the-counters medications and dietary supplements like vitamins, so that they can be aware of potential drug interactions and side effects. To this end:

  • Bring a list of all your medications and supplements to every appointment with every health care provider.
  • Remind all medical staff of any medication allergies you have.
  • Ask your doctor and pharmacist about potential side effects or drug interactions.

Never be afraid to ask questions. It is important that you understand how to take your medication correctly. You can ask the doctor, the pharmacist or both; the more questions you ask, the more you can be sure that no one made an oversight.

The rest of the time

Just as with medication usage, it's important to feel comfortable asking questions, so voice any concerns you may have and make sure each of your health care providers has all of your important health information and medical records. Additionally:

  • Consider asking a family member or friend to accompany you to appointments.
  • Question your doctor as to the reasoning behind a test or treatment if you are uncertain.
  • Follow up about medical test results.

When it comes to medical treatments or tests, more is not necessarily better, so if you're not sure it's necessary, discuss it with your doctor. After you do go through a test, don't assume that no news is good news; request a copy of the results.

Resources

Being informed and knowledgeable about your condition can be beneficial, so you may want to research your health problems and medications on your own. No matter how prepared you are, though, you cannot foresee or prevent every medical mistake and shouldn't have to do so. Thankfully, if a serious medical error causes you severe injury or harm, there are Massachusetts legal professionals who can help you fight for the justice and compensation you need and deserve.