When tennis star Andy Murray posted a hospital photo to Instagram last week, the pushback was swift. Not for the overshare, but for what some doctors said were medical errors, including misplaced IVs and unshaven arm hair. The British doctors who treated him insisted the procedures were, in fact, up to code.
If experts can’t agree on the right hospital treatment, how does a patient stand a chance? “The best way is to ask a lot of questions,” says Dr. Gregory Mosteller, an emergency medicine specialist at UNC REX hospital in Raleigh, NC. Don’t be afraid to speak up, he says: Doctors make mistakes, and patients suffer as a result.
Here are some common red flags — and how to prevent them from becoming real problems.
The wrong medication
“When an emergency department gets busy, and you’re going to receive a medication, ask ‘What is it, what’s it for, and is it really supposed to go to me?’ ” Mosteller says. It’s surprisingly easy to wind up with the wrong prescription, particularly when it’s done through a computer system. “Electronic medical records are great, but you can easily click on the wrong person,” he says.
Even if a medication is meant for you, it’s worth checking to see that it won’t conflict with any drugs you’re already taking, or if you’re allergic to it. “You should have a band that clearly displays your allergies, on your arm or another extremity,” says Dr. Borislav Stoev, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. If you’re confused or overwhelmed, Stoev suggests requesting a patient advocate — someone employed by the hospital to help you ask the right questions and understand what’s happening.
Think grabbing the wrong Starbucks order is bad? Imagine receiving the wrong platelets. Treatment mix-ups do happen, Stoev says. Always confirm that the blood transfusion you’re about to receive is indeed intended for you.
The same goes for any unexpected tests. “If the physician says you’re getting an ultrasound, and then someone comes in and says, ‘Let’s go for your X-ray,’ that should be a red flag,” says Stoev. Question anything that seems like overkill, or contrary to something you’d been told.
Last month, a Florida surgeon was fined for removing a woman’s kidney during what was supposed to be routine back surgery. The gaffe made the news, but wrong-site surgeries aren’t as uncommon as you might think. Long hours, back-to-back surgeries and even ego can lead to mistakes in the operating room — and a big surprise when you wake up.
Confirm any surgical procedures before you go under anesthesia, and make sure your surgeon uses a marker. “Physicians should mark the surgical site, prior to surgery, on the body part being operated on,” says Dr. Frank Illuzzi, chief medical officer at CityMD. “You [and your advocate] should ensure that the surgeon has indicated the correct site.”
One of the most dangerous weapons in an ER? Your MD’s hands. Hospitals are rife with germs, which travel easily, thanks to all the skin-on-skin contact. “It is absolutely OK to ask people entering your room to wash their hands,” says Illuzzi. “There are hand sanitizers everywhere. They need to be used before and after every encounter.”
Doctors often feel pressure to provide antibiotics, even if they’re unnecessary. But antibiotics can have negative side effects, and their overprescription is contributing to drug-resistant superbugs. “You have to ask, ‘Do I have an infection or is it a viral illness? If it’s viral, then I don’t need antibiotics,’ ” Stoev says. Speak up if you’re considering going pill-free once you leave the hospital: Skipping antibiotics when they’re necessary, or stopping midcourse, can have life-threatening consequences.