Patients and families can play a critical role in preventing medical errors and helping to reduce the risk of medical harm. For National Safety Month, we focus on a few key actions.
by Joanna Carmona
Mark your calendars—and with good reason this time. In a world of National Chocolate Macaroon Day and Put a Pillow in Your Fridge Day, National Safety Month is something worth talking about.
The National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) this month, and every month, aims to empower patients to ask the critical medical questions that can make a difference in their care. The National Patient Safety Foundation's stance is that while patients and families can play a critical role in preventing medical errors and reducing harm, the responsibility for safe care lies primarily with the leaders of health care organizations and clinicians and staff who deliver care.
Even with the onus on health care practitioners to make care safe, here’s how you can take charge of your own safety:
1. Ask questions about the risks and benefits of recommendations until you understand the answers.
“The best advice I can give is to be your own advocate. Question, question, question until things are explained in a way you understand. A health care system that doesn't address your concerns is a risky one,” said Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, director of Adult Critical-Care Medicine and a patient-safety researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore in a recent article. If you aren’t sure what questions to ask, check out our Ask Me 3 program.
2. Don’t go alone to the hospital or to doctor visits.
Bring a sibling, spouse, friend, or neighbor— anyone you trust to be your ally.
According to a 2011 article in the American Family Physician journal, an advocate can:
- Speak up for the patient who may not be expressing all of their medical concerns.
- Help to keep track and remember all instructions.
- Provide emotional support, even if they don’t interact directly with medical staff.
3. Always know why and how you take your medications, and their names.
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers found that from 1999 to 2012, the percentage of adults taking five or more prescription drugs doubled from 8% to 15%.
With prescription medications on the rise and with patients juggling multiple prescriptions, a two-way conversation around drug safety is needed.
Here’s what you should ask, according to a 2014 article from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ):
- What is the medicine for?
- How am I supposed to take it and for how long?
- What side effects are likely? What do I do if they occur?
- Is this medicine safe to take with other medicines or dietary supplements I am taking?
- What food, drink, or activities should I avoid while taking this medicine?
4. Be sure you understand the plan of action for your care plan.
“Limited health literacy is a hidden epidemic. It can affect health status, health outcomes, health care use, and health costs,” according to 2008 article in The Permanente Journal. Oftentimes, medical information and terminology is complex, so if you don’t understand something, don’t hesitate to ask.
5. Say back to your clinicians in your own words what you think they have told you.
By practicing this step on a regular basis, it may help you remember the instructions after you leave and helps clinicians know if you’ve understood. For example, “Just so I understand, I need to take X medication, X times per day, for the next X days?”
6. Arrange to get any recommended lab tests done before a visit.
The advantage of getting lab tests completed before seeing a doctor is that the results can be discussed during the visit, instead of during a follow-up or having the results explained over the phone.
7. Determine who is in charge of your care.
Many health care settings are moving toward team-based care. If admitted into a teaching hospital, for example, you may find that multiple clinicians are involved in your care. There may be interns, a hospitalist, nurses, and doctors taking care of you at any given time. You can ask: “Who is the key person in charge of my care?”
For more information on patient safety for patients and families, visit our website.
Looking for more patient resources?
- Download this report of the Informed Patient Institute, done in conjunction with Consumer Reports, which evaluates what type of information is available to consumers on medical board websites nationwide.
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Joanna Carmona is communications coordinator at the National Patient Safety Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.