Medical mistakes are all too common in hospitals, but you might not hear much about them from patients themselves. For one thing, many victims and their families, understandably, don't want to talk publicly about painful memories. And even if they do, they're often prevented from speaking out by gag orders or sealed legal settlements.
That's unfortunate, says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union's Safe Patient Project. "The best cure for medical harm is full disclosure," she says.
Our new report How Safe Is Your Hospital? shares the stories of two patients who were harmed during hospital stays. That includes Patrick Roth of Dartmouth, Mass., pictured at right, who can't walk unassisted because of surgical complications. It also describes the risks that lurk inside hospitals, such as surgical and bloodstream infections. We also rate 1,159 hospitals nationwide for safety.
Before you tell your story, follow these steps to protect yourself:
Get prompt medical attention. A trusted primary care doctor, for example, can help you decide how to proceed. Or see an independent doctor for another look. If you suspect a friend or family member is in danger, call a meeting with all of her or his doctors.
Get a copy of your medical records. They belong to you and can help you and your other doctors understand what happened, and what needs to happen. Your physician, or the hospital's records department, can help you obtain a complete copy, including medical summaries, doctor and nursing notes, test results, and diagnostic images. Note that you might have to pay for copies. If you believe that someone died from hospital harm, ask for an autopsy, to determine the most likely cause of death. Hospitals don't always do them automatically, but the person's next of kin or the legally responsible party can request one. Because autopsies help doctors learn more about illness and ways to improve medical care, autopsies are usually performed without charge. Although you have the right to pay for an independent one on your own.
Report the problem. Only about 14 percent of medical harm events are reported by hospital staff, according to federal estimates. Make sure you tell your version of events to the hospital. Then contact:
• Your local or state health department.
• The Joint Commission, an organization that accredits and certifies more than 19,000 health care organizations.
• Your state's Medicare Quality Improvement Organization, if you are a Medicare patient.
Don't pay. "You shouldn't have to pay for a mistake or its consequences," says John Santa, M.D. director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. For example, patients shouldn't be billed for treatment related to hospital error, such as treating a broken hip after a preventable fall in the hospital.
Consider hiring a lawyer. Medical malpractice has a high standard of proof, and attorneys might reject your case. But a lawyer can also help you negotiate with hospitals over medical bills or compensation agreements, even if you aren't considering legal action.
Tell others about your experience. If you have been harmed in the hospital, we encourage you to consider sharing your story with our Safe Patient Project. Consumers Union's advocates use those patient experiences to help push for legislative and regulatory changes. ProPublica, an independent newsroom that has also written extensively about patient safety, also maintains a database of patient stories. In addition, it recently started a Patient Harm Community on Facebook.