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Even though there is no way to completely protect yourself from harm from medical negligence, there are some things that patients can do to increase their chance for a good outcome from medical care. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality provides some good advice to patients to help prevent medical errors. Here is a summary of some of their suggestions:

  • Be active in your own health care.
  • When you schedule a doctor’s appointment, think about the reason for your visit and plan to ask questions during the visit.
  • Ask questions throughout the process. What is the provider planning to do? Why? If it is a test, ask what the doctor hopes to learn from the test.  If it is a procedure, ask what the doctor expects from the procedure.
  • Don’t be rushed through the process. Unless you have an emergency, the provider should be able to spend time to fully explain your condition and your available options for treatment.
  • Don’t be afraid to offend. Ask what the provider expects will happen if a procedure or test is not done.
  • Make and keep a list of the medications (prescription and over-the-counter) that you are taking.  Always share with the doctor all of your medications to prevent drug interactions.
  • Take your medication list to the pharmacy when you will fill a prescription. Your pharmacist may see an interaction that your doctor missed.
  • Make sure you understand your medications. Ask your doctor and your pharmacist:
    • What is the purpose of the medication?
    • How should I take it?
    • What happens if I don’t take it?
    • Are there any side effects I should watch for?
    • When should I call the doctor?
  • Cross-check your pharmacist. Confirm that the medication you have been given is the same medication that your doctor ordered. If it is a new prescription, don’t be afraid to ask the pharmacist what the medication looks like.
  • Read the prescription label before you leave the pharmacy. Many people forget the doctor’s instructions and have to rely on the medicine bottle. Ask questions if something doesn’t seem right.
  • If you have to go to the hospital, do some research before you go. How many people have had the same procedure that you are having? Is your doctor someone who does the procedure frequently? What kind of results has your doctor had?
  • It’s okay to ask every person who walks in your hospital room to wash hands. It’s also okay to ask people who are touching you to wear gloves.
  • Go over the plan for care after you leave the hospital. Ask what you should expect and who to call if something unexpected happens.
  • If you have surgery, be clear and specific about what surgery is to be performed and why. Have your doctor put his initials on the site where he plans to operate.
  • If you have trouble speaking up for yourself, take someone with you.
  • If the provider uses words that are new to you, get them in writing. Ask if the doctor has patient information sheets describing your particular condition.
  • If the provider refuses to answer questions or refuses to explain in language you understand, get someone else involved.
  • Never accept the answer: “Because Doctor says so.”

No doctor should ever make you feel bad or embarrassed about asking questions. Most doctors welcome their patients’ participation in their own health care. If your doctor can’t or won’t include you in decisions, look for a new doctor.  If you can’t change doctors, find an advocate to help you.


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