According to a report in last week's Los Angeles Times, about 100 Californians a month are seriously and needlessly harmed while receiving medical care. This number comes from the reports of the "preventable and should never happen" category of adverse events required by California state law but is almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg of medical mistakes that happen throughout the country every day.
Two such mishaps were reported in the Los Angeles Times piece: Technicians at a hospital in Santa Cruz unintentionally placed a CT scan of one patient into the electronic file of another, leading physicians to remove the wrong patient's appendix. An elderly woman died at a hospital in Pomona after a nurse gave her two medications that were not prescribed. My former secretary was recently diagnosed with cervical cancer requiring a hysterectomy because she never received the news that her Pap test was abnormal and needed further testing. She would have needed much less invasive treatment just one year earlier.
I have dedicated much of my career to teaching people how to manage and control their own health care. Hearing yet again about avoidable medical errors reminds me to speak out. So many medical mistakes could be avoided if patients were placed front and center of their health care information and health care decisions rather than passively accepting care, often on the sideline.
To start, all patients must control their own complete cradle-to-grave medical records. Today such records exist piecemeal in a variety of offices and hospitals, and the information is rarely available when patients need it most.
I offer you five simple but powerful steps that you can take to avoid the many pitfalls of health care and get the best care possible.
1. Keep track of your own medical records
We no longer live in an era where we have just one primary care provider for our entire lives. The more doctors we see, the more information that can get lost in the shuffle.
Come to your doctor's visit prepared with copies of medical records, recent test results and family history information. Your doctor will have a better picture of your previous medical care and can keep it in mind for future treatment.
Also, carry an emergency health information card with you at all times, which lists up-to-date medical conditions, medications, family history, emergency contacts, allergies, immunization status and information on advance directives. Whether you store your records in a folder or on a home computer or server, always keep at the ready a hard copy of the most recent and critical information to share with your doctors.
Seniors -- keep your information in the kitchen and an emergency card taped to the refrigerator where emergency personnel can quickly find it.
2. Trust your instincts and ask questions
Medicine is a fast-paced field, with advancements and discoveries happening by the minute. It's impossible for doctors to be aware of everything new.
If you see something in the news that might apply to your care, write it down and ask about it on your next visit. If you experience any strange symptoms throughout the year, make sure you ask about those as well. Your health radar works better for you and for your loved ones -- no doctor or nurse could possibly know all there is to know about you.
3. Talk with your doctor about which tests and treatments are right for you