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Medical Errors in Hospitals

Physician Error

Whenever I was furious with my little brother who had just toppled over my Lincoln Log house (okay, so I predate Legos), my grandmother would intervene and say, “To err is human but to forgive is divine.” Well, I wasn't feeling too divine at eight years old but the point sank in as the years rolled on. Doctors have been given pretty divine status in this culture, so it comes as quite a surprise and disappointment when they make a mistake. And doctors do make mistakes.

Here are a few things you can do to safeguard your parent from physician error:


Many errors in hospitals involve giving the wrong medication, the wrong dosage, or medication that the patient is allergic to—even though the correct information is stated on patients' charts. Get Mom or Dad to always ask the name of the drugs when a nurse hands your parent pills to take. Your parents should know both the brand and generic name of the drugs they're allergic to so they'll recognize either name. Mom or Dad should always ask what medication is being pumped through an intravenous line and what it's supposed to do. If your parent isn't able to ask these questions, you ask. Always!

  • When it comes to surgery, always ask for a second opinion. This is something that you'll probably have to push for because many of our parents' generation think second opinions are an insult to their doctors, but many physicians welcome another doc's opinion. If there is another, safer way to treat Mom or Dad's condition without surgery, it's definitely worth researching.
  • Make your own allergies alert notice by writing down the drugs your parent is allergic to and taping it on the head of Mom or Dad's bed. Also write down any medical conditions your parent has (diabetes, for example).
  • Immediately report to the doctor and nurse any side effects your parent experiences with the drugs he or she is taking.
  • Over-the-counter drugs still count as drugs. Don't give your parent his or her usual dose of aspirin or even vitamins without checking with the doctor.
  • Bring to the hospital the list of drugs your mom or dad is taking. Review these with the doctor to determine what your parent should continue taking during the hospital stay. Be sure to ask the doctor about any complications that can arise if new drugs are added to the regimen. The more drugs you parent is taking, the more likely he or she is going to run into complications from adverse drug interactions.

Bed Sores

Your parents' skin becomes more fragile with age. Laying in one position for long periods of time can irritate their sensitive skin, especially in bony areas such as the heels, elbows, and tail bone where pressure decreases the blood flow. Sometimes you'll hear the term “pressure sores” rather than bed sores for this reason. If Mom isn't being routinely repositioned or “turned” as it is commonly referred to, her skin begins to get red and tender. If not treated immediately, an open wound will develop which becomes a prime source for infections. These are especially feared in nursing homes, but I have seen patients with very good skin condition come back to the nursing home from a hospital stay with several pressure sores because no one took the time to routinely turn them. So be sure to check over Mom's sensitive spots and make sure she's being repositioned. Ask the staff to provide an egg-crate foam mattress, which are used to prevent pressure sores, to put on top of the hospital bed mattress. Be sure to take it home with you.

More on: Aging Parents


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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