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A Patient's Five Steps to Safer Healthcare

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2000 – It's your health. Defense medical officials want you to know simple steps you can take to safeguard it as a DoD healthcare patient.

"We want to make people understand there are certain things they can do that will really minimize patient errors and, even more, will help draw them into their own care," said Dr. John Mazzuchi, deputy for clinical and program policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. "An individual person is responsible for his or her own health care, too. We want them to be in a partnership with their doctor."

To help build this partnership the Quality Interagency Committee, a group of healthcare professionals from several federal agencies that deals with quality and safety issues in medicine, came up with a list of five things individuals can do to safeguard themselves from medical errors.

o Speak up if you have questions or concerns. Mazzuchi said he wants patients to understand asking questions shouldn't be seen as challenging physicians. "I'm sure it can be somewhat uncomfortable for a young enlisted person or a spouse of a young enlisted person to be sitting in front of a full colonel who's the physician and start asking questions," he said.

Mazzuchi stressed he's not suggesting patients question the doctor's intelligence, integrity or motivation. "But if you have questions as a patient, you need to get those questions answered," he said, noting that patients do a better job of following instructions if they understand the instructions clearly.

o Keep a list off all medications you take. "Clearly, medication errors are a major concern because we write so many prescriptions," Mazzuchi said. Because medications can counteract each other or cause a serious reaction when combined, he said, it's critical for patients to tell their doctor and pharmacist what medications they're taking, including over-the- counter drugs and supplements, and any allergies they might have.

o Make sure you get the results of any test or procedure. "Don't assume that because the doctor has not gotten back to you in two weeks, everything was fine," Mazzuchi said. "That doesn't mean that it couldn't have been lost in the mail; it could have been misplaced someplace; the doctor thought the nurse was calling, the nurse thought the doctor had called."

Individuals should call their healthcare provider and ask for an explanation of results they don't understand. "Sometimes people write right instead of left, or they write yes instead of no, or positive instead of negative -- not because they're bad people but because we all make mistakes," he said. "If a result comes back that seems strange, I think it's important for any patient to pick up the phone and call the doc, call the nurse, call the lab tech, whomever you're supposed to call, and say, 'I don't understand these results; can you go over them with me?'"

o Talk with your doctor or healthcare team about your options if you need hospital care. "Certain hospitals do a better job with certain types of surgery than others," Mazzuchi said. "So wherever there's an option, you'd want to go to the hospital that has a record for the best outcomes."

o Make sure you understand what will happen if you need surgery. "If something different happens from what the physician tells you to expect, then you need to bring that to the physician's and nurse's attention immediately. You may be having something bad happening to you, and you need to say so right away," Mazzuchi said. It's easier to treat you when a problem is brought up right away than when you wait, he noted.

Mazzuchi said DoD is also working to educate healthcare providers on these issues to make this partnership between provider and patient easier. "We are educating both those physicians who are coming up through medical school and those who are already in practice about the need to go over options and to bring the patient into the health decisions that are being made," he said.

Medical errors might always happen, but there are ways to mitigate their seriousness. "Patient errors don't happen because you have bad people, they happen because health care providers - - physicians, nurses, psychologists, whatever the healthcare professional is -- are human beings and they make errors," Mazzuchi said. "They get tired; they get overwhelmed; they get absent-minded; and they make mistakes.

"But when you're the most informed, when you really know what's going on about your healthcare, when you understand your options, when you understand what's probably going to happen to you and what's going to happen to you after you recover, when you understand what your lab results are and what they mean, you can take better care of yourself," he said.

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