Medical professionals are true lifesavers—but they’re not perfect. Here’s what you can do to keep hospital errors in check.

By Stacy Colino

You might say it’s a rite of summer: Inspired by nice weather, you forgo making pancakes on a Saturday morning and decide to run some muddy obstacle course instead...only to end up in the ER with serious back pain. Or your honor roll student is such a genius, he sets off firecrackers and practically blows off  his thumb nail. The thing is, hospital visits happen. You want to get in and out with the least hassle and the very best treatment possible. Some of that’s up to you; some of it’s up to the hospital avoiding mistakes like miscommunication between doctors or a bad reaction to medication. “Being an active participant in your own care can help you get optimal treatment,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center at Griffin Hospital. “But there’s a sweet spot between being passive and confrontational.” Follow this advice to land exactly in the middle the next time you land in the hospital.

Plan If You Can

If you’re able to choose when to go to the hospital—like for outpatient surgery—mornings are best. It’s usually less crowded and the staff is less likely to be tired. FYI, “on weekends hospitals are understaffed,” says Robert Pearl, MD, author of Mistreated: Why We Think We’re Getting Good Health Care—and Why We’re Usually Wrong, which can often mean delays for patients. What’s more, one study found that peo­ple who had elective or urgent surgery on the weekend had a 60% greater risk of major complications. 

Ask If There's An In-Patient Portal

If so, sign up and review the information the hos­pital has on you to make sure it’s correct. Continue doing this once or twice a day while you’re there. (It’s like checking your credit report for errors.) “You can review your prescribed meds and scheduled procedures on your lap­top,” says Terri Joyce, a physician assistant hospitalist at Canton-

Potsdam Hos­pital in Potsdam, NY. “If you’re savvy, you might be able to catch a mistake before it happens.”

Tell Your Story Well

Whether you’re describing symptoms or the course of an illness or injury, provide the important facts in a simple and straightforward manner. Even if no one asks, be sure to mention medications and supplements you’re taking, allergies, major illnesses, surgeries, previous hospitalizations and any history of adverse reactions.

Ask and Reflect

Make sure you understand what tests, procedures and medications you’re getting, why you’re getting them and what to expect from them (including side effects). “Ask providers to clarify what you don’t understand and use so-called reflective listening skills: Repeat what you think the doctor said in your own words,” suggests Michael Carius, MD, past president of the American Board of Emergency Medicine. If new symptoms emerge or there’s a change in your status while you’re at the hospital, tell a nurse and ask if it’s a concern. “Do not keep it a secret,” Carius says. 

Question Your Testing

Everyone has heard the urban legends—the orderly who mixed up patients and rolled the wrong person in for surgery, the surgeon who replaced the wrong knee. If you’re doubled over from food poisoning and someone says they need to wheel you in for a hip X-ray, by all means, ask why. In addition to being a waste of time, unnecessary tests can reveal incidental findings that can lead to further tests or treatments you don’t really need, Katz says. Don’t be afraid to ask: Why should I have this? Is it necessary to do this now? 

Find an Advocate

Hospitals can feel overwhelming (especially when you’re feverish or groggy). That’s why it’s smart to have a family member or friend serve as your advocate, taking notes and keeping track of your meds and what procedures are being done and why. This second set of eyes and ears can help prevent medical mistakes. Your advocate might notice that you’ve been given the same medicine twice, or that you’re being served lunch despite instructions to skip food in preparation for a procedure. In some cases you may want to have a family member stay with you overnight in case complica­tions occur. If that’s not possible, be nice to your nurses (see “Your Secret BFF At the Hospital,” below), who may become your best allies. 

Query Inconsistencies

“Care these days is hyperspecialized,” Katz says. “You can get great care for your kidneys from a nephrologist, for example, who has no clue as to what’s happening in your lungs or liver.” It’s critical, then, to ask your doctors if they’re talking to one another and to speak up if things don’t seem to make sense: Perhaps you’re given a prescription for a drug that wasn’t mentioned (but could interfere with another med you’re on) or at a different dosage than what the doctor indicated. 

Protect Yourself From Germs

MRSA, C Diff, CRE—there’s actually a list of superbugs and hospital-acquired infections that can make you sick, unrelated to what brought you to the hospital. The best way to combat infection is to wash your hands regularly or use an antibacterial foam cleanser, especially before you eat, advises Julie Fitzwater, RN, a professor of nursing at Linfield College in Portland, OR. “If you don’t see your providers wash their hands, it’s OK to ask if they have before they touch or examine you,” she says. (The same goes for a stethoscope—you can ask for it to be cleaned.) You can’t go overboard when protecting yourself from germs in a hospital. 

You might say it’s a rite of summer: Inspired by nice weather, you forgo making pancakes on a Saturday morning and decide to run some muddy obstacle course instead...only to end up in the ER with serious back pain. Or your honor roll student is such a genius, he sets off firecrackers and practically blows off  his thumb nail. The thing is, hospital visits happen. You want to get in and out with the least hassle and the very best treatment possible. Some of that’s up to you; some of it’s up to the hospital avoiding mistakes like miscommunication between doctors or a bad reaction to medication. “Being an active participant in your own care can help you get optimal treatment,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center at Griffin Hospital. “But there’s a sweet spot between being passive and confrontational.” Follow this advice to land exactly in the middle the next time you land in the hospital.

Plan If You Can

If you’re able to choose when to go to the hospital—like for outpatient surgery—mornings are best. It’s usually less crowded and the staff is less likely to be tired. FYI, “on weekends hospitals are understaffed,” says Robert Pearl, MD, author of Mistreated: Why We Think We’re Getting Good Health Care—and Why We’re Usually Wrong, which can often mean delays for patients. What’s more, one study found that peo­ple who had elective or urgent surgery on the weekend had a 60% greater risk of major complications. 

Ask If There's An In-Patient Portal

If so, sign up and review the information the hos­pital has on you to make sure it’s correct. Continue doing this once or twice a day while you’re there. (It’s like checking your credit report for errors.) “You can review your prescribed meds and scheduled procedures on your lap­top,” says Terri Joyce, a physician assistant hospitalist at Canton-

Potsdam Hos­pital in Potsdam, NY. “If you’re savvy, you might be able to catch a mistake before it happens.”

Tell Your Story Well

Whether you’re describing symptoms or the course of an illness or injury, provide the important facts in a simple and straightforward manner. Even if no one asks, be sure to mention medications and supplements you’re taking, allergies, major illnesses, surgeries, previous hospitalizations and any history of adverse reactions.

Ask and Reflect

Make sure you understand what tests, procedures and medications you’re getting, why you’re getting them and what to expect from them (including side effects). “Ask providers to clarify what you don’t understand and use so-called reflective listening skills: Repeat what you think the doctor said in your own words,” suggests Michael Carius, MD, past president of the American Board of Emergency Medicine. If new symptoms emerge or there’s a change in your status while you’re at the hospital, tell a nurse and ask if it’s a concern. “Do not keep it a secret,” Carius says. 

Question Your Testing

Everyone has heard the urban legends—the orderly who mixed up patients and rolled the wrong person in for surgery, the surgeon who replaced the wrong knee. If you’re doubled over from food poisoning and someone says they need to wheel you in for a hip X-ray, by all means, ask why. In addition to being a waste of time, unnecessary tests can reveal incidental findings that can lead to further tests or treatments you don’t really need, Katz says. Don’t be afraid to ask: Why should I have this? Is it necessary to do this now? 

Find an Advocate

Hospitals can feel overwhelming (especially when you’re feverish or groggy). That’s why it’s smart to have a family member or friend serve as your advocate, taking notes and keeping track of your meds and what procedures are being done and why. This second set of eyes and ears can help prevent medical mistakes. Your advocate might notice that you’ve been given the same medicine twice, or that you’re being served lunch despite instructions to skip food in preparation for a procedure. In some cases you may want to have a family member stay with you overnight in case complica­tions occur. If that’s not possible, be nice to your nurses (see “Your Secret BFF At the Hospital,” below), who may become your best allies. 

Query Inconsistencies

“Care these days is hyperspecialized,” Katz says. “You can get great care for your kidneys from a nephrologist, for example, who has no clue as to what’s happening in your lungs or liver.” It’s critical, then, to ask your doctors if they’re talking to one another and to speak up if things don’t seem to make sense: Perhaps you’re given a prescription for a drug that wasn’t mentioned (but could interfere with another med you’re on) or at a different dosage than what the doctor indicated. 

Protect Yourself From Germs

MRSA, C Diff, CRE—there’s actually a list of superbugs and hospital-acquired infections that can make you sick, unrelated to what brought you to the hospital. The best way to combat infection is to wash your hands regularly or use an antibacterial foam cleanser, especially before you eat, advises Julie Fitzwater, RN, a professor of nursing at Linfield College in Portland, OR. “If you don’t see your providers wash their hands, it’s OK to ask if they have before they touch or examine you,” she says. (The same goes for a stethoscope—you can ask for it to be cleaned.) You can’t go overboard when protecting yourself from germs in a hospital. 

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What Is Post-Hospital Syndrome?

After a hospital stay, most people bid a not-so-fond but final farewell to sharing a room, scrolling through the same 10 channels and eating an all-day diet of Jell-O. But not everyone. There’s a phenomenon called “post-hospital syndrome,” a transient period of increased risk for illness or adverse effects after a hospital stay, that often leads to re-hospitalization—right when you’re trying to resume your regularly scheduled life.

Sometimes the readmission relates to your initial ailment. Other times it’s due to a new condition brought on by being hospitalized (say, an infection or a weakened immune system) or poor post-hospital care. Protect yourself with this advice from cardiologist Harlan M. Krumholz, MD, director of the Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation at Yale–New Haven Hospital.

Before leaving the hospital, make sure you understand your new medication regimen,

when you should follow up with your doctor, what symptoms you should expect and which ones warrant a call to the doctor.

Ask what your predicted trajectory is for recovery, and when you can return to driving, work, exercising and other activities. 

Know whom you should contact if questions or concerns come up.

Consume a healthy diet and get the right balance of rest, sleep and physical activity, based on your doctor’s instructions.

Your Secret BFFs at the Hospital

Nursing Assistants/Aides 

They’re likely to be the ones who take your vitals, bathe, change or reposition you, and handle your routine hands-on care, which is why you’ll probably see them more often than your other caregivers.

Physician Assistants 

PAs work under the supervision of a physician. They’re a great source of info about what’s causing your symptoms and why you’re getting certain tests or meds.

Hospitalists 

Like the captain of a ship, a hospitalist is a doctor who leads the medical team by ordering and reviewing tests, developing treatment plans and consulting with specialists.

Patient Advocates/Ombudsmen

Got a complaint about the care you’re getting or privacy issues? These are the go-to people who can look out for your best interests and help you get the care and attention you need.

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