10 Things That Can Kill You in the Hospital

Hospitals have recognized these medical errors as a significant problem, and they are taking steps -- such as hand hygiene compliance and surgical checklists -- to make care safer. But if you or your loved one needs medical care now, be on the lookout for these errors.
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Hospitals can be dangerous places. According to the Institute of Medicine, 100,000 people die every year due to medical error -- more deaths than from car accidents, diabetes, and pneumonia. Far more patients are victims of medical error. In a stunning 2011 Health Affairs article, researchers found that medical errors occur in one-third of all hospitalized patients. A separate study of Medicare patients found that one in seven people in the hospital experience at least one unintended harm.

Before we discuss what you can do about these shocking statistics, let's take a look at the 10 common medical errors that can occur in the hospital:

#1. Misdiagnosis. The most common type of medical error is error in diagnosis. This is not surprising, since the right diagnosis is the key to your entire medical care. A wrong diagnosis can delay your treatment, sometimes with deadly consequences. Not receiving a diagnosis can be dangerous too; this is why it's so important to aim to figure out what you have, not just receive a list of things that you don't have.

#2. Unnecessary treatment. Patient advocate and safety expert Patty Skolnik founded Citizens for Patient Safety after her then-healthy 22-year-old son underwent brain surgery that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. He fought for his life for two years before succumbing to multiple infections. His story is incredibly tragic -- especially since his surgery was never needed in the first place. Like Michael, thousands of people receive unnecessary treatment that cost them their lives.

#3. Unnecessary tests and deadly procedures. Studies show that $700 billion is spent every year on unnecessary tests and treatments. Not only is this costly, it can also be deadly. CT scans can increase your lifetime risk of cancer, and dyes from CTs and MRIs can cause kidney failure. Even a simple blood draw can result in infection. This is not to say that you should never have a test done, only to be aware that there are risks involved, and to always ask why a test or procedure is needed.

#4. Medication mistakes. Over 60 percent of hospitalized patients miss their regular medication while they are in the hospital. On average, 6.8 medications are left out per patient. Wrong medications are often given to patients; a 2006 Institute of Medicine report estimated that medication error injure 1.5 million Americans every year at a cost of $3.5 billion.

#5. "Never events." Virtually everyone has heard the story of operating on the wrong limb or the wrong patient. There are also horror studies of food that was meant to go into stomach tubes going into chest tubes, resulting in severe infections. Air bubbles going into IV catheters, resulting in strokes. Sponges, wipes, and even scissors being left in people's bodies after surgery. These are all "never events," meaning that they should never happen, but they still do, often with deadly consequences.

#6. Uncoordinated care. In our changing health care system, the idea of having "your" doctor is becoming a relic of the past. If you're going to the hospital, chances that you won't be taken care of by your regular doctor but by the doctor on call. You'll probably see several specialists, who scribble notes in charts but rarely coordinate with each other. You may end up with two of the same tests, or with medications that interfere with each other. There could be lack of coordination between your doctor and your nurse, which can also result in confusion and medical error.

#7. Infections, from the hospital to you. According to the Centers for Disease Control, hospital-acquired infections affect 1.7 million people every year. These include pneumonias, infections around the site of surgery, urinary infections from catheters, and bloodstream infections from IVs. Such infections often involve bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics and can be deadly (the CDC estimates nearly 100,000 deaths due to them every year), especially to those with weakened immune systems.

#8. Not-so-accidental "accidents." Every year, 500,000 patients fall while in the hospital. As many "accidents" occur due to malfunctioning medical devices. Defibrillators don't shock, hip implants stop working, and pacemaker wires break. There are supposed to be safeguards to prevent these problems from happening, but these "accidents" continue to occur.

#9. Missed warning signs. When patients get worse, there is usually a period of minutes to hours where there are warning signs. They may feel worse and have new symptoms, and there are often changes in their heart rate, blood pressure, and other measurements. Unfortunately, these warning signs are frequently missed, so that by the time they are finally noticed, there could have been irreversible damage.

#10. Going home -- not so fast. Studies show that one in five Medicare patients return to the hospital within 30 days of discharge from the hospital. This could be due to patients being discharged before they are ready, without understanding their discharge information, without adequate follow-up, or if there are complications with their care. The transition from hospital to home is one of the most vulnerable times, and miscommunication and misunderstanding can kill you after you get home from the hospital too.

Hospitals have recognized these medical errors as a significant problem, and they are taking steps -- such as hand hygiene compliance and surgical checklists -- to make care safer. But if you or your loved one needs medical care now, be on the lookout for these errors. My next blog will address other proactive steps that you can take to ensure that you stay safe and sound in the hospital.

For more by Leana Wen, M.D., click here.

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