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Effective Communication Can Reduce Medical Errors

By: Rosa Rios

Have you ever heard horror stories where a nurse mistakenly injected a lethal dose of morphine to a patient? Then you realize there is a chance that you could be that very patient. It is horrible and embarrassing to read that researchers identified medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the United States. The Institute of Medicine reported more than 98,000 annual deaths are due to preventable medical errors. The word preventable stands out to me!

The information given is not to cause widespread panic, but to highlight that medical errors are common. A simple mistaken number in a patient’s medication dose can be lethal. I have been in the healthcare industry for a few years, and I am shocked every time I read an article concerning medical errors. Such errors are devastating for patients and families, and also for providers who after being sued for negligence lose both license and trust.

Clinicians are not entirely to blame. Medical errors can also originate from defective health technology and communication. Some blame is also attributed to hospital-acquired infections and lack of protocol for patient follow-up. Misconnected breathing circuits in the anesthesia machine, ventilator leaks, and empty gas cylinders are some examples of health instruments that can cause medical errors. Medscape mentioned that hospital campaigns about “first check if the machine is working” have been effective in reducing these mistakes.

Based on the British Medical Journal, one of the main triggers of medical errors is the diversity and complexity of the health care delivery system. For example, a diabetic patient can receive treatment from an internist, endocrinologist, podiatrist, ophthalmologist, pharmacist, social worker, and the list can go on and on depending on patient needs or complications. Therefore, it is not easy to coordinate numerous providers, especially if there is no health information exchange through electronic medical records. Hence, effective communication has been identified as the central element for effectively coordinated patient care.

Unfortunately, not all complications are preventable in patients with advanced chronic diseases. For example, diabetic patients with end-stage renal disease need to be admitted to treatment facilities for dialysis weekly, exposing them to catheter and other types of dangerous infections. Provider efforts to reduce infections such as hand washing decrease the chance of medical complications. When potential errors are identified, providers should expose this information and request help from hospital managers. Moreover, exposing the mistakes and admitting them can help hospitals do a better job in preventing future mistakes and patient harm. 

Finally, patients have to be more aware and educated about health and health care. As consumers of health care, patients have the right as well as the obligation to investigate, criticize, and demand better care. All users, from patients and families to health care directors compose the health care system. Therefore, we all should participate in the battle against medical errors. Let’s help providers to deliver high quality medical care by generating awareness and promoting patient and provider education about preventable medical errors.