At Baker and Gilchrist, for over 20 years the primary focus of our practice has been investigating and pursuing claims for serious injuries related to medical negligence. Our clients often express to us that they don’t want what happened to them to happen to someone else. Over the years, we frequently have been asked what can be done to prevent a loved one from being the victim of a medical error. When we ourselves get ill or have someone we love who needs medical care, we all have to rely on the expertise and recommendations of our treating physicians. However, medical errors do occur more frequently than we would like to believe; so what can be done?
Often, medical errors are not single missteps but rather a series of small breakdowns that occur in the process of caring for a patient. If just one of those missteps is caught, then the medical error can be prevented. We often hear from family members that they knew the treatment was wrong and the diagnosis that the doctor gave didn’t seem right. Sometimes they spoke up but were ignored. Other times, they stayed quiet and trusted that the medical professionals knew what they were doing. However, medical providers are human, and humans make unintentional mistakes for many different reasons ─ especially in the fast-paced world of medicine.
What then can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones from medical errors when in the emergency department or admitted to the hospital? All the medical terms and diagnoses can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. However, there are some steps you can take to help prevent possible errors from happening. The following suggestions are some of the ways we believe you can ensure your safety or the safety of your loved ones when they are being cared for by medical professionals:
- Have a designated family member acting as the primary advocate. Ask that the nurses and doctors include this person in any discussion about the patient’s treatment plan and working diagnosis. That person should be present whenever a doctor or nurse is discussing diagnoses or treatment plans.
- Do not be afraid to speak up if things do not feel right or if you think the medical team is missing something. Family members usually have keen intuition about what might be going on with their loved one. Listen to your gut.
- Ask the question: “What else could be causing this?” By asking this question, you trigger the medical provider to think of and consider the alternative diagnoses. Often medical providers get “stuck” on one diagnosis even when certain clinical findings contradict their diagnosis. It is important that they remain flexible and are able to switch courses if the clinical evidence points toward an alternative diagnosis.
- Ask the question: “What is the worst possible thing that could be causing this problem?” This triggers the medical provider to think of the worst possible cause and run tests to potentially rule out any life-threatening diagnosis.
- If you feel your questions are not being adequately answered, seek someone else who can answer your questions. You can switch doctors or get another opinion.
It is also important to take notes when meeting with a doctor or nurse. Document everything that goes on from the nursing care to the physician’s treatment plan. Furthermore, ask questions when you don’t understand something. Asking questions of medical professionals can be intimidating, especially when they always seem to be in a hurry. However, it is your right to understand the diagnostic and treatment plan for yourself or your loved one.
Whether you are the patient or an advocate for a loved one, you are part of the team to ensure patient safety, and you can take an active role. Hopefully, these suggestions can empower you to be the best patient advocate possible for yourself or your loved one.