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Medical Errors in Hospitals

Here's a bulletin for you: Medical errors are one of the nation's leading causes of death and injury. The Institute of Medicine, a highly respected private, nonprofit group known for its health policy advice it gives Congress, recently reported that …

  • Medical errors kill some 44,000 people in U.S. hospitals each year; however, another study said the number was closer to 98,000.
  • More people die from medical mistakes each year than from highway accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS.
  • Most of the medical errors are not the result of individual recklessness, but from basic flaws in the way the health care system is organized. For example: illegible handwriting of doctor's orders and stocking medicines at toxic, full-strength levels, which increases the risk for a hurried technician administering a toxic dose before remembering to dilute it.
  • More than 7,000 people die each year both in and out of hospitals due to medication errors.

Nosocomial infections are hospital-acquired infections. They account for thousands of deaths and illnesses of people who have been hospitalized. Examples of these infections are pneumonia and bloodstream and urinary tract infections. The Centers for Disease Control report that nearly 88,000 deaths in 1995 were attributed to hospital-borne infections.

Senior Alert

If your parent comes down with an infection, ask the doctor for the exact name and spelling of the infection. Also ask to see someone from the Infection Control Unit (every hospital must have one). Ask for an explanation of the nature of the infection, and what the best practices are to treat it. You should also ask for the hospital's infection rate. If this infection has caused a real hardship for your parent, report the incident to your local health department. You may prevent somebody else's Mom or Dad from going through the same thing.

The Institute of Medicine's report has touched off quite a firestorm. The president of the United States and some members of congress claim that hospitals should be required to report all mistakes that cause serious injury and death. And hospitals should voluntarily report less serious errors including close calls. Right now, only about 18 states have laws demanding hospitals report medical errors, also known as adverse events.

So where does all this leave you and your parents? First you need to be an informed consumer and be as persistent as four-year-olds running around asking, “What's this?” and teenagers asking, “But, why?”

In the following sections I'll discuss the three most common areas of medical errors made in hospitals, along with steps you can take and questions you can ask so your parents don't become victims.


We all know that hospitals are places for very sick people, and very sick people have germs. Doctors, nurses, and technicians who care for these very sick people come in contact with them in the most intimate of ways: via blood, urine, and bodily contact. Germs happily jump on board any hospital staffer's hands and gain free access to every person with whom the staff person comes into contact— literally hundreds of people every day. Most of the patients have weakened immune systems, so they can't fight off all of the germs running rampant through the hospital. If they've had surgery, the site of the wound is a prime destination port for the germs. You don't need a Harvard medical degree to get the picture. The infections that people acquire in the hospital are known as nosocomial infections.

What can you and your parents do? Every hospital room has a bathroom with a sink and antibacterial soap. If you don't see the hospital employee or doctor go in and wash his or her hands, politely tell that person you'd feel much more comfortable if he or she would do so before touching your parent. If someone enters the room wearing gloves, ask that person to please put on a new pair. Make sure you, other family members, and friends wash their hands as soon as they've entered the room. And if anyone has a cold or flu—stay at home.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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