Medical mistakes can be deadly. Here’s how you can help prevent them

There’s an old joke that sticks with me where a surgeon tells a patient: “I have good news and bad news.” “What’s the bad news?” asks the patient. “We amputated the wrong leg.” “Oh my god! Well what’s the good news?” “Your other leg’s getting better!” I love black humour, but real medical mistakes are no laughing matter.

The question is, what can be done to minimise the chances of a medical mistake, and can we as patients help?

As absurd as the scenario in the above joke sounds, it has actually happened. In 1995, Florida man Willie King booked in for surgery at a Tampa hospital. Mr King, a diabetic, was to have his diseased right leg removed, but the surgeon amputated his left leg.

That is, of course, an extreme case of a medical mistake, but it highlights what can go wrong. The title of the newspaper report of Mr King’s misfortune points to the crux of the matter: “String of errors”.

When something catastrophic happens, multiple mistakes are generally made. Each one as an isolated incident might be innocuous, but a particular combination of seemingly minor errors can end in disaster. Regular watchers of the documentary series Air Crash Investigations will understand that.  

Prevention of serious medical mistakes rightly lies with professional practitioners, but patients can also play a role.

Medical professionals and hospitals

Medical mistakes of the magnitude experienced by Willie King are thankfully extremely rare. But errors occur. It is not unknown for surgeons to leave an unintentional ‘souvenir’ behind when sewing up. That, too, is a rare occurrence, one that should never happen.

But if it does, the patient can be one to sound the alarm. The problem is that many of the signs might be similar to usual post-surgery experiences, such as severe pain, swelling, fever, nausea and changes to bowel movements.

If you have any such symptoms after surgery, advise the hospital medical staff. Better to hear the response, ‘That’s normal after an operation like yours”’ than to say nothing and suffer critical consequences.

Medical mistakes during ongoing treatment

One potential weakness in the error-checking process in the past has been a lack of consultation with pharmacists. And data indicates that it is older Australians who are more likely to bear the brunt of that protocol gap.

Hospital error minimisation protocols have traditionally not included pharmacists, but in Australia that’s about to change. The federal government has announced funding for a $1.4 million project tackling the issue. It will be led by Dr Jacinta Johnson, a University of South Australia pharmacist.

Dr Johnson says the aim of the project is to improve the quality of care for people aged 65 and older, who experience three times as many medication errors during hospital stays than younger patients.

“Medication errors are the most frequent and preventable mistakes being made in hospitals today,” Dr Johnson said. “Across Australia, research shows two medication errors are made on admission to hospital for every three patients, and an error occurs one in 10 times a medication is administered. Most of these affect older patients, who are at much higher risk.”

The new study will build on an existing range of paper-based pharmacist charting models that have been evaluated in Australia. These have demonstrated significant reductions in medication errors already, cutting average hospital stays by 10 per cent and reducing the cost per admission by $726.

What else can we do as patients?

While very few of us as patients have significant medical knowledge, all of us know our own minds and bodies. Using this knowledge, combined with communication, is a key to reducing the risk of medical mistakes.

Whether it be on your first visit to a GP or as you are checking out of hospital after surgery, advising medical staff of any doubts or concerns could save you from serious consequences. Better to tell a doctor what they already know rather than assume.

If you have any allergies, let them know, even if you advised someone earlier in the chain. Follow your doctor’s instructions to the letter if possible. That is especially important when taking prescribed medications.

Positive steps continue to be taken in the area of medical mistake minimisation, and that’s great news. But remember, you can be a vital part of that process. Don’t be afraid to tell medical professionals how you feel. It could save a lot of pain later.

Have you ever been the victim of a medical mistake? What happened? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: You can now order all kinds of medical tests online. Research shows that is (mostly) a bad idea

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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