According to one study conducted by the Institute of Medicine, and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), medical malpractice is reportedly the third leading cause of death among Americans. The report “To Err Is Human” describes two studies attributing up to 100,000 deaths per year to medical mistakes. A study by the independent healthcare ratings company, HealthGrades, followed more than 40 million Medicare hospitalization records over a 3-year period of time and found 1.16 million preventable patient safety incident, and 247,662 patient deaths from these Medicare patients alone. The excess cost to the hospitals from the medical errors was $8.6 billion dollars over the course of the 3-year period.
There are various resources available to suggest how you can minimize your risk of suffering a severe problem due to medical negligence. One excellent source is Patrick Malone’s book “The Life You Save”.
To me, the most important thing you can do is to be your own best healthcare advocate by being proactive in the care you receive. If your doctor orders lab tests or a CT scan, the results should be communicated to you immediately after they become available to your doctor. If this doesn’t happen, call your primary care physician to get the results. Do not assume that no news is good news. If often isn’t.
If you have an appointment with your doctors to discuss test results and treatment options, consider taking a relative or a friend. Getting bad news about medical tests is a very stressful situation. Understanding and remembering what your doctor discusses about your test results, the state of your disease process and your treatment options, all in a very short period of time, can be difficult, if not overwhelming. Having another person with you can reduce your tension and also provide a second set of ears to hear and remember the medical information discussed.
If you have questions, ask them. There are no stupid questions when it comes to your medical condition and treatment. If surgery is being proposed, ask about alternative less invasive treatment. While most doctors have very low complication rates, you do not want to be one of the few who experiences a serious complication for a surgical procedure that you actually didn’t need.
Put it in writing. If you have questions to ask at your appointment, take a list of your questions with you. At your appointment, take notes or have a relative or friend take notes so that you can refresh your memory and have a record about what your doctor said when you get home or at some later time.
Consider getting a second opinion. While you may have total confidence in your physician, getting a second opinion in many circumstances can be important. Remember that your doctor is often relying on the interpretation by other doctors you don’t know of crucial diagnostic studies or pathology specimens. With respect to screening tests such as mammograms or pelvic ultrasounds, it is well established that there is a percentage of these tests that are read as negative in a patient who actually has cancer, or are read as positive for cancer in a patient who will turn out never to have had the cancer. Second opinions of diagnostic studies or pathology specimens are increasingly available at a reasonable cost.
It is an unfortunate reality that delays in diagnosis of potentially fatal diseases can result from the misreading of mammograms, pap smears, or fine needle biopsy specimens. Unfortunately, some patients undergo unnecessary and life-altering surgery when diagnostic studies before surgery are incorrectly reported as showing cancer, when in fact it becomes clear after the surgery that no cancer ever was present.
Your physician wants you to obtain the best healthcare treatment possible. Many, if not most, physicians have many patients and are so pressed for time that communication of test results can slip through the cracks. You are your only patient. By becoming proactive in your own healthcare, you can become part of your team of healthcare providers. If your physician thinks you ask too many questions, consider getting a new physician.