Protect Yourself from Medical Mistakes

Use these four simple strategies to prevent medical errors and get the quality care you deserve.

Medically reviewed in April 2021

Outbreaks of exotic new diseases and potential health epidemics are all over the news, but simple medical errors—human mistakes and miscalculations—account for more damage and lives lost each year than do high-profile illnesses such as the West Nile virus.

Take action against error
Unfortunately, medical errors have become all too common and can occur at any stage in the healthcare process, from diagnosis to treatment. So it's critical for patients to realize that virtually all encounters with the healthcare system carry a risk for medical slip-ups. The good news: you can take steps to protect yourself while getting the best care possible. How? By being a proactive patient and taking some basic precautions.

Precaution 1
Know and communicate your medical history
Your medical history forms the foundation of all your healthcare decisions. But medical care is often split among different providers who may use different systems for recording and storing information. As a result, medical records are often incomplete or contain errors or are scattered among several providers, with no one person seeing the entire picture that makes up your health profile. Except for you.

Make sure to share the following information with each healthcare provider you see:

  • Current medical conditions
  • Current medications, vitamins, herbs and supplements you're taking
  • Known allergies
  • Details of past surgeries, hospitalizations and treatments
  • Medical records from previous providers (you can have them transferred between providers at no cost)

Never assume that your healthcare provider knows everything he or she should about you. The odds are very low that your doctor has your entire medical history at hand.

Learn more about being a safe patient from the National Patient Safety Foundation.

Precaution 2
Speak up and ask questions
One of the best things you can do to protect yourself from medical errors is to make every attempt to understand all of the information your healthcare provider conveys to you.

In order to give informed consent for a procedure or treatment, you need to know the consequences and feel comfortable that it's the right step for you. It's your healthcare provider's responsibility to inform you of any risks associated with tests or treatments. But let's face it—medical terms can be confusing. If you don't understand something your doctor tells you, ask for an explanation in everyday language. Some people find it also helps to get the details in writing.

Precaution 3
Be diligent and detail oriented about your meds
When you are prescribed medication, make sure you can read your doctor's handwriting before you leave the office. If you can't read it, the pharmacist may not be able to, either.

Ask for written information about the medication, including:

  • Instructions on how and when to take it
  • Potential side effects and what to do if you experience them
  • Contraindications (e.g., substances or other drugs your medication should not be combined with)
  • What to do if you miss a dose

When you get your prescription filled at the pharmacy, ask the pharmacist to double-check and confirm that you're receiving the exact medication your doctor prescribed for you. Some medications have similar-sounding names but are used to treat very different conditions. Check the label to make sure it's the right medication (not someone else's) and that the dose is printed correctly—typos, such as misplaced decimal points and zeros, put your health at risk.

Learn more about common medication errors from the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Being proactive may require that you monitor the conduct of caregivers, too. If you see something that looks not quite right, speak up. Remember, your health is at stake.

  • John's story: John was in the hospital recovering from a minor procedure. The nurse in charge of his care was near the end of her 12-hour shift. When she came to his room to dispense some new medication into his IV, John asked for the name of the medication and what it was being used for. The nurse double-checked his chart to make sure John was in fact receiving the medication his doctor prescribed for him. John helped protect his health by acting as an extra set of eyes and ears to ensure he was getting the intended medical care.

Precaution 4
Do your own research
Ask your healthcare provider about all of the different treatments available for your condition and why he or she chose the one prescribed.

  • Amanda's story: Amanda's doctor recommended surgery to remove painful uterine fibroids that had not responded to medication therapy. After asking about both the risks and benefits of the procedure, Amanda decided to do some research of her own. She found information about a less invasive procedure used to treat fibroids and decided to seek a second opinion. After weighing the pros and cons of the two procedures available to her, Amanda chose the treatment she felt would provide her with the best outcome.

If your doctor recommends diagnostic procedures or treatments that you're uncomfortable with or unsure about, or if you'd like to know what other treatment options may exist, get a second opinion.

Once you feel confident about your treatment decision, look for facilities that handle a large number of cases similar to yours. Institutions that regularly perform the procedure you need are more likely to have a higher success rate.

Your actions now may avert disaster later
Mistakes happen every day. Although they are not intentional, they could be quite harmful when they happen in the context of medical care. Thinking of yourself as a member of your own healthcare team will help you feel comfortable asking questions and sharing information. As a result, you will gain the knowledge you need to feel confident about your care.

  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
  • National Academy of Medicine
  • Institute for Safe Medication Practices
  • National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention

More On

How can I go green on a budget?


How can I go green on a budget?
Watch as Nutritionist Kate Geagan provides tips on how to go green and decrease your carbon footprint on a budget.
4 Myths and Facts About Holiday Eating


4 Myths and Facts About Holiday Eating
From the first slice of Thanksgiving pie until the last bite of brunch on New Year's Day, the holidays are often a great time to indulge in some of yo...
6 Ways to Stay on Track—Emotionally and Physically—This Winter


6 Ways to Stay on Track—Emotionally and Physically—This Winter
Shorter sunshine hours and hectic days don’t mean you have to forgo your healthy routines.
AgeLess: The care you give


AgeLess: The care you give
Roadmap to Resilience: having a sense of purpose


Roadmap to Resilience: having a sense of purpose