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Protecting Yourself Against Medical Errors

Every year, thousands of Americans die because of medical errors. Such errors can occur anywhere in the health care system and can involve medicines, surgery, diagnosis, equipment, or lab reports.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) says that errors also happen when health care providers and their patients have problems communicating.

The following suggestions can help you protect yourself and your family from such errors.

Take an active role

Research shows that patients who are involved with their care tend to get better results.

It's crucial to question your health care providers, pharmacist, or nurse if something occurs that's out of the ordinary, the AHRQ says. This might be a pill that looks different from what you usually receive, or a test you underwent but never found out the results.

Keep your health care provider informed

Make sure all your health care providers know about every medicine or remedy you use. This includes both prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and dietary supplements such as vitamins and herbs.

The AHRQ also suggests that, at least once a year, bring all of your medicines and supplements with you to your health care provider. This can help your provider keep your records up-to-date, which can help you get better quality care.

Allergy alert

Always keep a list with you at all times of any allergies you have. Make sure your health care provider knows about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medicines. This can help avoid prescribing a medicine that can harm you.

Is it legible?

When your health care provider writes you a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can't read your doctor's handwriting, your pharmacist might not be able to either.

Clear terms

Ask for information about your medicines in terms you can understand—both when your medicines are prescribed and when you receive them from your pharmacist.

Check drug, dosage

When you pick up your medicine from the pharmacy, ask: "Is this the medicine that my health care provider prescribed?" Speak up if you have questions about the directions on your medicine labels. For example, ask if "four doses daily" means taking a dose every six hours around the clock or just during waking hours.

Become informed and ask questions

Learn about your condition and treatments by asking your health care provider and nurse and by using other reliable sources. The more you know, the better able you'll be to track your recovery and recognize symptoms that could indicate a worsening of your condition. Always ask questions when you don't understand; and keep asking until you do understand. Many times people are afraid to ask questions. Remember your health, and perhaps even your life, depend on understanding your condition, how to take care of yourself, and how to take your medications. Be your own best advocate. If you really have trouble asking questions, bring a trusted family member or friend who will ask them for you.