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Preventing Medical Errors: What Parents Can Do
Unfortunately, in medicine, as in any human endeavor, mistakes are occasionally made. Errors tend to happen when health care providers and families are busy, rushed and distracted, and important information is not communicated clearly. Medical errors can involve an incorrect diagnosis, surgery, or type or dose of medicine; and errors can occur in hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and at home. Thankfully, most medical errors lead only to minor complications. But it’s always a tragedy when medical errors cause an illness, injury, or death of a child, and health care professionals and parents must do everything we can to prevent them.

The medical system takes many steps to try to prevent errors. All health care professionals go through extensive training, licensing, and continuing education. Crucial medical decisions are often double-checked by another professional on the health care team. When errors happen, the health care team discusses them to learn how to prevent similar errors in the future.

There are also some things that parents can do to help improve communication with your child’s health care providers and prevent medical errors:

1. Have a primary health care provider or “medical home” for your child—a specific doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant who sees your child for well and sick visits. Having one health care provider helps ensure that she gets to know you and your child, and coordinates your child’s health care more effectively. Choose a health care provider who communicates well with you (See the article, “Choosing a Doctor for Your Child”).

2. Be involved in your child’s health care. Ask questions and make sure you are fully informed about your child’s health and treatment options. Make it clear to your health care providers that you want to work with them to make all the decisions regarding your child’s health care.

3. Keep your doctor informed:
  • Tell your child’s doctor about all of the medications your child is taking. This includes prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, or other alternative medicines. Ask the doctor whether these are safe.
  • Keep the doctor informed about your child’s allergies and other reactions to medicines.
  • 4. Ask questions to make sure you understand everything:
    When the doctor writes a prescription, ask him to explain to you:
  • the name of the medicine
  • what it is for
  • how it is given (e.g., by mouth, in the eye, or in the ear)
  • how much to give (e.g., 1 teaspoon) and the best measuring device
  • how often to give it (e.g., twice a day, 3 times a day with meals, or just when your child has symptoms)
  • how many days to give the medicine
  • if this medicine is safe with the other medicines your child is taking
  • if there are any foods or activities to avoid when taking the medicine
  • what reactions your child might have to the medicine, and when you should call.
  • If your child is having medical tests or treatments, ask why they are being done, and if there are any alternatives. Ask when the test results will be available. If you don’t hear from the doctor, call to ask about the test results.
  • Ask the doctor to refer you to other sources of information—written materials, websites, other health professionals, and other parents—that can help you understand your child’s condition.
  • 5. If your child is in the hospital:
  • Make sure you know who is in charge of her health care, and talk with the doctor every day about your child’s progress. Make sure your child’s chart clearly states her allergies and blood type.
  • If your child is having surgery, ask the surgeon to clearly explain what will be done. Asking to see a picture or diagram of the surgery can be helpful. To make sure they operate on the correct site, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons urges its members to sign their initials before the surgery on the site to be operated.
  • When your child is being sent home, ask the doctor to clearly explain the home care plan: diet, medicines, equipment, exercises, when your child can return to regular activities, follow-up medical appointments, potential problems to watch for, and when to call the doctor.
  • Remember, sharing important information with your child’s health care providers, asking questions, and insisting on being an active member of your child’s health care team helps ensure better health outcomes for your child.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician