10 Shocking Medical Mistakes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Medical errors are one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and what’s even more shocking is that the harm often is preventable
  • Hospitals often make such egregious errors as treating the wrong patient, leaving behind surgical tools in a person after surgery, losing patients or operating on the wrong body part
  • Air bubbles in the blood after a chest tube is removed, mix-ups involving medical tubing, and hospital-acquired infections are other examples of sometimes fatal medical errors that are all too common
  • Healthy eating, exercise, and stress management can help keep you OUT of the hospital, but if you do have to go there, knowing your rights and responsibilities can help ensure your hospital stay is a safe and healing one

By Dr. Mercola

It's no secret that medical errors are one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

At a quarter million every year, they're so prevalent that if you were to add them all up, they most likely would be at least No. 3 on the death list, according to Dr. Peter Pronovost, and anesthesiologist and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

What's shocking is that the harm often is preventable.

In an effort to help consumers become their own patient advocates, CNN has compiled this list of the top 10 mistakes hospitals make, and what you can do prevent them.

1. Treating the Wrong Patient

If your identity gets mixed up with someone else's, you can get the wrong medications or even the wrong surgery. Most hospitals now give patients a wristband with your full name, date of birth and a unique barcode. Make sure this is checked and verified before every medical procedure.

2. Surgical Souvenirs

Surgical tools or other objects are left inside people after surgery far more often than you'd like to think. This is often the result of surgical staff failing to count, or miscounting, equipment during the procedure. Unexpected pain, fever and swelling after surgery are all indications that you could have a surgical tool still inside you.

Just how often does this occur? One study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that about 1,500 Americans have objects left inside of them following surgery every year.1 Surgical sponges, which can fill up with blood and resemble bodily tissues, are by far the most common item left behind, but incidents involving clamps, retractors, electrodes and other objects have also been reported. If you have an emergency surgery, your likelihood of being impacted by an object left behind increases by 900 percent, and by 400 percent if unexpected changes occur during the procedure. Being overweight or obese also increases the risk.

Before heading in to surgery, alert your surgeon and attendants that you are aware of this issue, and ask them to be especially careful. Also make sure counts of surgical equipment are routine at the institution where the surgery is being performed.

3. Lost Patients

Patients with dementia or other mental disorders can wander off, get lost, become trapped in closets and even die from hypothermia, dehydration and other hazards. A GPS tracking bracelet can ensure that your loved one will always be easily locatable.

4. Fake Doctors

Sometimes con artists like to pretend they're doctors, offering medical treatments that make them rich but will only make you sicker. CNN gave the example of Sarafina Gerling, who wore a back brace advertised online by a man found guilty of insurance fraud. Gerling thought the brace would help her scoliosis, but it only made the condition worse. Make sure any health care practitioner you receive treatment from is, in fact, qualified to do so.

5. The ER Waiting Game

Emergency rooms and hospitals only have so much space, so when beds are full it can mean you're forced to wait for medical care — and that wait time can sometimes be the difference between life and death, or the loss of limbs, as happened to Malyia Jeffers, a baby who waited five hours for medical care while flesh-eating bacteria spread through her body.

6. Air Bubbles in Blood

If the hole in your chest isn't sealed correctly (airtight) after a chest tube is removed, air bubbles can enter the wound and cut off blood supply to your lungs, heart, kidneys and brain — a life-threatening event. Before having a chest tube removed, ask the nurse how you should be positioned to avoid air bubbles, and make sure the hole will be sealed airtight.

7. Operating on the Wrong Body Part

It can happen if a surgeon misreads your chart, or if the chart is incorrect. Surgical drapings can also cover marks made on a person's body to indicate where the surgery is to be performed. If you are having surgery, make sure you confirm with the surgeon, nurses and other staff that they have the correct body location on which to operate — and if any marks are drawn to indicate the area, make sure they are in the proper location.

8. Infection Infestation

Hospital-acquired infections are alarmingly common, and sadly they're often deadly. In the United States, more than 2 million people are affected by hospital-acquired infections each year, and a whopping 100,000 people die as a result. According to the 2011 Health Grades Hospital Quality in America report,ii analysis of approximately 40 million Medicare patients' records from 2007 through 2009 showed that 1 in 9 patients developed such hospital-acquired infections!

The saddest part is, most of these cases could likely have been easily prevented with better infection control in hospitals—simple routines such as doctors and nurses washing their hands between each patient, for example. Be aware and make sure doctors, nurses and other health care providers wash their hands before touching you; if you feel uncomfortable speaking up … realize that doing so could literally save your life.

9. Lookalike Tubes

Medical tubing serves a variety of unique purposes in hospitals, for instance delivering medication, fluids, food, gases or blood to different areas of the body — the veins, arteries, stomach, lungs, etc. Unfortunately, many varieties of medical tubing are interchangeable and easily connectable, meaning it is very simple to mistakenly connect a feeding tube to an intravenous line, or IV fluids to an oxygen tube, leading to suffocation.

There have been cases reported where a spinal anesthetic used for pain relief during childbirth was mistakenly put into a vein, killing the 16-year-old recipient, and a healthy young pregnant woman and her unborn daughter died after a feeding tube was mistakenly connected to an intravenous line, sending liquid food directly into her veins -- a fatal, and completely avoidable, mistake.iii

With nurses often working overtime or covering too many patients at once, it is all too easy to connect a tube improperly, leading to an often fatal outcome for the patient. A simple solution would be to change the design of the tubes so tubing for different functions are no longer compatible with one another, but so far the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been slow to take action. Until that change takes place, protect yourself by asking nurses to trace all medical tubing back to its original source to prevent mishaps.

10. Waking up During Surgery

If you receive an under-dose of anesthesia, your brain may be "awake" even if you can't move your muscles. Unable to move or speak, you may still feel the surgery taking place. Express any concerns you have with your surgeon and anesthesiologist prior to surgery, including asking about options for local anesthesia in lieu of being put to sleep.

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Medical Errors are Alarmingly Common — How to Save Your Life if You're Admitted to the Hospital

Download Interview Transcript

According to the 2011 Health Grades report, the incidence rate of medical harm occurring in the United States is estimated to be over 40,000 harmful and/or lethal errors each and EVERY day.iv

In my recent interview (above) with Dr. Andrew Saul, co-author of Hospitals and Health: Your Orthomolecular Guide to a Shorter Hospital Stay (which is available on Amazon), he explained that the lowest estimate makes hospitals one of the top 10 causes of deaths in the United States ... and the highest estimate makes hospital and drugs the number one cause of death in the United States.

One of the reasons I am so passionate about sharing the information on this site about healthy eating, exercise, and stress management with you is because it can help keep you OUT of the hospital. But if you do have to go there, you need to know how to play the game.

My primary suggestion is to avoid hospitals unless it's an absolute emergency and you need life-saving medical attention. In such cases, it's worth taking one of Dr. Saul's recommendations, which is to bring a personal advocate -- a relative or friend who can speak up for you and ensure you're given proper care if you can't do so yourself. If you're having an elective medical procedure done, remember that this gives you greater leeway and personal choice—use it!

Many believe training hospitals will provide them with the latest and greatest care, but they can actually be far more dangerous.

As a general rule, avoid elective surgeries and procedures during the month of July because this is when brand new residents begin their training. According to a 2010 report in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, lethal medication errors consistently spike by about 10 percent each July, particularly in teaching hospitals, due to the inexperience of new residents.v Also be cautious of weekends.

I recommend you watch the video above for more potentially life-saving tips in the event you find yourself in a hospital. Knowing how to prevent disease so you can avoid hospitals in the first place is clearly your best bet. But knowing what to do to make your hospital stay as safe as possible is equally important.

Understand that you, the patient, are the most powerful entity within the entire hospital system. However, the system works on the assumption that the patient will not claim that power. Knowing your rights and responsibilities can help ensure your hospital stay is a safe and healing one.


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