How to protect yourself from a devastating medical error


Recently, a frightening report was issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that found at some point it’s a given: You will receive at least one wrong medical diagnosis.

And that mistake could very well come with “devastating consequences.”

It turns out that hundreds of thousands of Americans are dying every year from these kinds of medical mistakes. The numbers that the IOM and an earlier Johns Hopkins study found put diagnostic error as the number-three cause of death in the U.S. — right under heart disease and cancer.

But despite the shock waves this research sent through the medical world, it appears not much of anything is being done to try and improve things.

There is, however, an important step you can take that may very well prevent you or a loved one from becoming the next victim in this epidemic of errors.

A stitch in time

When Johns Hopkins released its numbers on how many mistakes are made in diagnosing patients, a professor there said that “diagnostic errors have been underappreciated and under-recognized.”

And guess what? Four years later, that’s still the case.

That’s why it’s vital to take matters into your own hands, starting with something that belongs to you — your medical records.

Despite how difficult it can seem to obtain them sometimes, your medical records, including notes and test results, are your property! And having them in your possession can be one of the most important things you can do to steer clear of mistakes and confusion.

You may remember the days when a medical record meant a file in your doctor’s office that was fairly easy to obtain a copy of. Now, close to all doctors and hospitals have moved to electronic medical records.

And like most high-tech innovations, it’s made things more confusing. You may be told that you don’t need all your reports, as you can access some type of patient “portal” and see messages, lab results and appointments. That’s fine and dandy, but it’s not enough.

Because one of the most important parts of your medical history is the notes that doctors (and all other health care providers who treat you) write up. Often called “clinic notes,” they are what experts refer to as the “nuts and bolts of any medical record.”

They are so important, in fact, that seven years ago a pilot program was started at two hospitals called OpenNotes to see if providing easy access to these records could benefit patients.

It was an overwhelming success. Both doctors and patients found that simply having that information put people in control of both their health and health care. Since that first test, numerous hospitals, including the entire VA system, have made these clinic notes readily available to their patients.

And they can be to you, too. You just need to know how to ask for them.

OpenNotes, which isn’t a product or computer software for your doctor, but rather a “movement” for full patient access to medical records, gives these important tips so you can get the records you’re entitled to by law!

#1: Ask for your notes! It’s that simple, but, as advises, “don’t be shy or hesitant.” Tell your doctor or nurse that you want your full medical records, including the notes that are written up after an appointment.

#2: Register for your health care system’s patient portal. As I mentioned, that won’t provide all the information you need, but can still offer some valuable tools.

#3: Don’t just collect your records, but use them! The notes are a good way to review a doctor’s visit and make sure your doctor understood your issues and that you’re both on the same page. And if you find a mistake, it’s important to let him know sooner rather than later.

Also, if you’re a caregiver for a family member, having their full medical records and appointment notes is especially important. It might even be a life-saver.

“Diagnostic errors are more common than you think” Norm Wu, February 19, 2017, The Doctor Weighs In,

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