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Nick Avgerinos
Nick Avgerinos
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Mistakes Were Made: 5 Tips for Avoiding Medical Malpractice

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Early this July, the CEO of large hospital in Boston posted a blog entitled: “The message you hope never to send.” Talk about a jarring headline for anyone with loved ones at the hospital. What was in the message? A post that admitted to a glaring mistake; doctors operated on the wrong side of a patient.

While, for understandable reasons, the details of the procedure are scattered, it’s enough to know that someone went in for an elective procedure on one side and came out with the procedure done to their other side. In other words, right procedure, wrong body part. (Thankfully, the patient is okay.) And while this is a frightening notion to anyone going under the knife, the CEO’s message was also reassuring.

Along with his admission of error came an apology. The hospital didn’t wait for the error to be discovered, and they didn’t try to shirk responsibility. Instead, it was a gracious, ‘I’m sorry,’ and an explanation of how they will try to be better in the future. The CEO admitted: “We learned that when teams are busy and distracted, it makes it easier to overlook something. We learned that key safety steps, like the ‘time out,’ need to occur every single time, since even one failure can be serious. We learned that serious events rarely relate to the performance of any single person. We learned that we have vulnerabilities that we were not even aware of, and that there are surely others out there.”

The message is, of course, disturbing, but also surprisingly refreshing. I recently wrote about the fiscal benefits that apologizing seems to have for doctors. And with this flesh-and-blood example, you can see why. A simple ‘I’m sorry’ injects humanity into an otherwise horrifying situation.

Going to the hospital is humbling for all of us. You have to trust the medical expertise of your doctors because they have the requisite training and, hopefully, know what’s best. And while the above-referenced error is the exception rather than the rule, CNN compiled these tips from surgical error experts to tip the odds in your favor:

1. Check out your doctor and hospital

Specifically, ask your doctor how many times he or she has done this procedure, and compare that with other physicians.

You can check out the hospital by going to HealthGrades or The Leapfrog Group, which rank hospitals by specialty. (For example, you can find good places to get hip surgery in Topeka, Kansas, or to have a baby in New York.) The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has detailed information about procedures performed at different hospitals.

2. Tell everyone who you are and why you’re having surgery.

You may feel like an idiot, but tell all the nurses and doctors your name, your date of birth, and what surgery you’re having (for example, “I’m John Smith, I was born 10/21/70, and I’m having arthroscopic surgery on my left knee.”). This can help prevent you receiving a surgery intended for someone down the hall. (Of course, if your name really is John Smith, you might want to give your address, too).

3. Make sure your doctor initials your site

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons urges its members to sign their initials directly on the site before surgery (shown in the group’s public service ads, like the one pictured above). Make sure your surgeon — not somebody else — does the signing and that it’s in the right place.

4. Confirm the surgery site with the surgeon right before the procedure

You may have already told the nurses, but it’s the surgeon who’s doing the actual cutting, so you need to tell him or her directly, says Dr. James Beaty, past president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

“You should say, ‘I’m not going back to surgery until I see my doctor and we confirm that this is the right site,’ ” he said.

5. Train someone to be your advocate

Don’t just bring a friend or family member to your surgery; train them to advocate for you. You’re likely to be anxious and a little addled before the surgery (not to mention asleep during it), so you’ll need help.

“Equip them with the information they need,” advised Ilene Corina, president of PULSE of New York, a patient advocacy group. For example, your advocate can help you check the initials on the surgical site or help you contact your surgeon.

It’s important to remember that doctors are regular people, too. By following these tips—consider them a common courtesy—you can help ease the stress of our overburdened medical system. Hopefully, doctors and patients can increasingly exchange such kindnesses and thereby lessen the sting of an already painful experience.