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Hospital-Bound? How to Protect Yourself

6 tips to reduce medical mistakes

So how can you protect against potential problems at the hospital, especially during the fateful month of July?

  • Bring your own records. Having a binder with your medical records is always wise, but makes even more sense when you’re being treated by unfamiliar doctors and nurses. At the very least, to reduce risk of dangerous drug interactions, bring several copies of a list of every medicine you take—prescriptions as well as over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and herbal supplements—with their correct spelling, specific doses and the reason for their use. This list should be given to all doctors and nurses treating you, and placed in your hospital file.
  • Have an extra set of eyes and ears. An advocate is usually a frequent visitor—friend or family member—“who should sit at your bedside, taking down notes and instructions,” says Christopher Landrigan, M.D., who conducts patient safety research at Harvard and is affiliated with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Like you, advocates should also ask “why” when a drug or procedure is offered, and help ensure your day-to-day care is correct and that you understand the “big plan” in your treatment.
  • Identify everyone—including yourself. The first thing any unfamiliar doctor or nurse should do is make sure you’re the “correct” patient. Introduce yourself and have doctors and nurses check your hospital-issued wristband. “You should also know the name of everyone who enters your room—and their responsibilities,” says Joanne Conroy, M.D., of the Association of American Medical Colleges, whose members include teaching hospitals and their personnel. “Medical students are often observers early on, but if they’re going to be more involved in your care, you have a right to know that.” If you’re uncomfortable with their designated role you can politely request a more experienced provider for that duty.
  • Know your lead provider, who has the ultimate responsibility for your treatment. This should be (and usually is) an experienced primary attending physician, but that may change throughout your stay. You want to know each one.
  • Schedule wisely. If offered a choice, try to have elective surgery early in the morning. Surgeons often perform a succession of procedures in one day. With inexperienced residents assisting, being the early case is one way to avoid a possible later-day rush. And as the day goes on, attention spans wane and fatigue sets in, adds David Sherer, M.D., past director of risk management for a large insurance provider and coauthor of Dr. David Sherer’s Hospital Survival Guide.
  • Some studies suggest Thursday and Fridays are best avoided for surgery.

Keep in mind, too, that nurses also tend to be busiest near the start or end of their shifts; at many hospitals, shifts change between 7 and 8 a.m., 3 and 4 p.m., and 11 p.m. and midnight.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about health and consumer issues.