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Medical Mistakes: What ever happened to "do no harm"?

Every doctor makes the promise to “do no harm.”   But doctors, nurses, physicians’ assistants, nursing homes, and hospitals do make mistakes. And a shocking report from the Institute of Medicine shows medical mistakes are a common occurrence and pose potentially life-threatening risks for patients. If medical mistakes were counted among the leading causes of death in America, they would be eighth on the list.

Surgical mistakes such as amputating the wrong foot frequently make headlines. But we may never hear about the more subtle errors, like a delay in diagnosis or misdiagnosis which costs precious time which could have been used to fight an illness or disease. These kinds of medical mistakes also cost lives.

According to the report, medical mistakes are a huge problem.  It quoted studies that estimate anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 hospitalized Americans die every year from treatment errors or surgical mistakes. To put that statistic into sharper focus, even the low-end figure of 44,000 deaths exceeds the number of people who die each year in highway car accidents, of breast cancer or AIDS

The cause, according to the Institute of Medicine, is not recklessness on the part of doctors or nurses but rather basic flaws in the way hospitals, clinics and pharmacies operate. 

Most doctors have notoriously poor handwriting which often leads to prescription mistakes.  Pharmacists try to decipher a dosage: was it 10 milligrams or 10 micrograms? Or even the name of the prescribed drug can be confusing. Too many drug names are very similar. For example: the painkiller Celebrex and the anti-seizure drug Cerebyx; or Narcan, which treats morphine overdoses, and Norcuron, which can paralyze breathing muscles.

Safeguards have already been implemented to reduce the likelihood of such mistakes. Many hospitals are now using computerized prescription systems in an attempt to ensure that pharmacists don't misread doctors' scrawled prescriptions. And the Food and Drug Administration is attempting to reduce drug confusion by ensuring that the names of new drugs don't sound too similar to drugs already on the market.

But far more is needed.  There needs to be a concerted and comprehensive effort to raise the bar on consumer safety in the health care industry.  Insurance companies and health maintenance organizations should also bear the burden of improving safety.

Unfortunately the patient may be the one who can do the most to prevent many medical mistakes. As a patient, you have the time and motivation to double-check your diagnosis and medications. Research your condition.  Education can allow you to double-check your diagnosis, examine all possible treatments, check your medications for possible adverse effects, and so on.