Keep Our Families SafeMore Tales of Medical Errors
The stories are gruesome.

A Washington state man finds that a surgeon left a thirteen-inch instrument in his body only when he sets off metal detectors at the airport. Two women die in a Connecticut hospital after being given nitrous oxide (laughing gas) instead of oxygen. A doctor in New York operates on the wrong knees of two separate patients.

These are just a few examples of medical errors – medical mistakes that injure or kill patients. They’re happening more often than you might think: 98,000 patients die every year because of medical errors, including operating on the wrong patient, prescribing the wrong drugs, or leaving surgical instruments inside a patient.

Now, a new book by two doctors, Internal Bleeding: The Truth Behind America’s Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes, stands ready to once again expose this growing and troubling problem in America’s health care system.

Before you can even open the book by Doctors Rober Wachter and Kaveh Shojania of the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, the cover reaches out and grabs you, featuring an x-ray image of a pair of forceps left inside a patient’s abdomen.

The book examines 20 case studies of egregious medical error. The emphasis is not on assigning blame, but rather on highlighting the errors and offering solutions.

The authors of the book convincingly argue that a flawed hospital system is responsible for the thousands of deaths that result from medical mistakes each year – most of which are avoidable.

While acknowledging the many challenges underfunded hospitals face, Wachter and Shojania offer practical solutions, such as using computers to prescribe drugs instead of relying on often-illegible handwritten notes and employing "hospitalists," or doctors who focus on integrating care between departments and the inpatient and outpatient settings.

Still, the ultimate conclusion of the book is inescapable: medical care is not as safe as it could be, and so far the resources, time and attention needed to fix this problem are lacking.

So what can we do to protect ourselves from medical errors?

The Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHCRQ), part of the Department for Health and Human Services (HHS), released a fact sheet called “20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors.” Five of these tips are:

• Be an active member of your health care team.

• Learn about your condition and treatments by asking your doctor and nurse and by using other reliable sources.

• Make sure that all health professionals involved in your care have important health information about you.

• When your doctor writes you a prescription, make sure you can read it.

• If you have a choice, choose a hospital at which many patients have the procedure or surgery you need.

With these tips to protect yourself and your family, hopefully more of us can stay safe.