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Errors in Hospital Care


Oren Traub

, MD, PhD, Pacific Medical Centers

Last full review/revision Mar 2018| Content last modified Mar 2018

When people are in the hospital, errors in care can occur. In the hospital, care is complicated, the environment is stressful, and many different people and systems have to work together. As a result, hospital care is not as safe as it should be. Each year in the United States, up to 250,000 people die because of medical errors that could be prevented. Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Errors may include the following:

  • Giving people the wrong drug, the wrong dose, or a drug they are allergic to
  • Scheduling tests or giving drugs to the wrong person
  • Doing a surgical procedure on the wrong side of the body
  • Missing important test results because doctors or nurses have had little sleep after taking care of someone who is critically ill

Over the past decade, hospitals in the United States have made much progress in designing systems to identify and prevent errors in care.

However, one of the best ways to help prevent errors is for people to participate in their care by asking questions and learning about their treatment. Steps they can take include

  • Providing an accurate list of the drugs they take at home
  • Providing a list of their drug allergies
  • Understanding why certain drugs are being given in the hospital and why tests are being done
  • Learning the names of the drugs that are prescribed and given to them, as well as the doses and number of times the drugs are given each day
  • Each time a nurse gives them a drug, asking the nurse to tell them the name of the drug and the reason it is being given
  • Asking about the results of any tests that have been done
  • Asking practitioners to wash their hands before doing an examination
  • Asking hospital staff members to address them by name
  • Getting a written list of drugs they are supposed to take and of follow-up instructions when they are discharged
  • Making sure that they, their doctor, and their surgeon all agree and are clear on exactly what will be done during any surgical procedure
  • Asking questions if something does not seem right
  • Asking a family member or friend to be with them and to ask questions on their behalf

People have a right to know if there has been an error in their care. If there is an error, they should ask the doctor or nurse to

  • Explain the nature of the error and the effect it will have on their health
  • Investigate how the error happened
  • Report the error to hospital administrators so that systems can be designed to prevent similar errors
  • Ask to see a representative from the hospital (hospital patient advocate) if they have additional concerns

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