Most people don’t like going to the hospital, but if you or a family member needs treatment, you probably want the most personal care possible. You may even assume doctors and nurses will remember your name, your face and your symptoms. But hospitals are chaotic places and even the best bedside-mannered physician can’t commit every patient’s record to memory. That’s why hospitals keep records. But as more of these records are converted from paper to a computer file, there seems to be greater potential for medical errors.

Doctors’ orders and test results can electronically slip into the wrong file fairly easily, and when that happens, a patient might receive treatment intended for someone else. Depending on the procedure, the consequences could warrant a medical malpractice lawsuit. Just how common is such a mix-up? According to a 2009 study of one children’s hospital, misplaced treatment orders were the second-most common reason patients received care intended for someone else.

The hospital consequently added a safeguard to its computer system that includes the patient’s photo on an “order verification screen.” The new system appears to have made a significant difference. In just one year the hospital went from 12 incidents of misplaced treatment orders to three. In all three cases, the patient file contained no photo. The change also reduced the number of “near-misses,” in which a treatment order went in the wrong file but was corrected by another staff member. In one year the number of near-misses went from 33 to 10. In all but one of those 10, the patient file lacked a photo.

Including digital photos of patients in their records is fairly inexpensive, says the chief author of the hospital study. But it only seems to be effective when patients or their guardians allow the photo to be taken. For those who object for privacy reasons, it might be worth considering the benefits of allowing a photo. At the very least, it’s a good idea to be told exactly what the treatment plan is and for someone else to pay attention. That way, before a patient is given an unexpected medication or procedure, you or your loved one can speak up and avoid a potentially serious medical error.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “Can patient photos help cut medical errors?” Amy Norton, June 4, 2012