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Hospital errors, malpractice suits can be prevented with checklists

The problem of medical malpractice is, unfortunately, alive and well in U.S. hospitals. Since the Institute of Medicine estimated a decade ago that up to 100,000 people a year die in U.S. hospitals from preventable errors, the problem has only gotten worse. Hospitals are undoubtedly busy places, and small mistakes here and there are natural. But to what extent should human error be excused, and what are hospitals doing to ensure that natural mistakes don't lead to serious harm and death to patients?

Some hospitals have developed checklists mandated by the Joint Commission, the organization that accredits American hospitals. For example, the "universal protocol" checklist is designed to prevent doctors from removing or operating on the wrong body part, an error that happens frequently -- up to 40 times a week in U.S. hospitals and clinics.

Some doctors and other seasoned medical professionals may assume they don't need checklists, especially the points that seem so mundane and common sense that they aren't worth mentioning. But because they aren't mentioned, they're often forgotten, which is what leads to errors such as amputating the wrong arm or performing the wrong surgery. The point of having a checklist is not having to worry about missing any steps in the midst of fatigue or pressure to complete a procedure quickly.

Still, in a culture where doctors can be overconfident and unwilling to collaborate with other staff, medical errors can and do happen. How can patients protect themselves? With a checklist of their own:

1. Do your homework: If you're going into the hospital, research hospitals in your area and ask your doctor which ones he or she trusts.

2. Ask a medical malpractice lawyer which hospitals are safe.

3. Find out if your upcoming procedure is one that your physician and the hospital do often.

4. Ask if the doctor and hospital use a checklist.

5. When you go to the hospital, provide a list of your medications and medical problems to the doctors and nurses caring for you.

6. Ask if doctors and nurses have washed their hands. They may bristle at the question, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

7. If you have an invasive device in your body, such as a catheter, ask every day if it's needed and when it can be taken out.

8. Bring a friend or family member to act as your advocate, ask questions and record the answers.

Source: Kaiser Health News, "Doctor, Did You Check Your Checklist?" Bara Vaida, Jan. 30, 2012

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