Nurses’ advice: how to avoid a medical disaster

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Medical errors kill more Americans each year than car crashes, breast cancer or AIDS, according to a 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine. So what can you do to protect yourself?

Today CNN sets out to answer exactly this. They interview a bunch of nurses and pump them for practical tips that you can use to ensure a safe hospital stay. The nurses gave a wide range of recommendations, everything from bringing a list of your current medications with you — even keeping one in your wallet in case of an emergency visit — to, yes, reminding your doctor to wash his or her hands. The most surprising recommendation? Make sure the hospital has your name right. Errors can, and do, occur even before you’re admitted. And a case of mistaken identity at the hospital can be lethal.

Simon Jarratt/Corbis

Simon Jarratt/Corbis

Earlier this year Consumer Reports surveyed another 731 nurses to get their thoughts on hospital care, too. The main concerns from that group: lack of cleanliness, and disjointed care between different doctors and nurses who work on your case. So communication matters, the nurses said. Don’t be shy to ask questions. Make sure you understand the answers. Be alert for anything that might have fallen through the cracks and, if possible, politely double-check the name and dosage of every medication received.

According to the 1999 Institute of Medicine report, medical errors are not really “a ‘bad apple’ problem” — one that’s caused by a few screw-up doctors.

More commonly, errors are caused by faulty systems, processes, and conditions that lead people to make mistakes or fail to prevent them. For example, stocking patient-care units in hospitals with certain full-strength drugs, even though they are toxic unless diluted, has resulted
in deadly mistakes.

In other words, don’t be afraid to work with your doctors and nurses. Anyone can make a mistake, and you’re not accusing anyone just by following up on your care plan. Hospital staff members may be busy and sometimes they may seem cold. But by the nurses’ account, at least, they need your help.

If you have a tip for surviving the hospital unscathed, click on “submit a comment” above to share it.

More Photography from Time