6 insider tips for safer surgery

Consumer Reports' safety experts give their best advice

Published: November 2014

Hospitals are dangerous places: 440,000 Americans each year are estimated to die after experiencing medical errors in hospitals. That’s 10 times the number of people who die in car crashes annually. It’s more than two jumbo jets crashing every day. And it’s nearing the number of people who die from heart disease or cancer. “Yet many of the deaths go unnoticed except by devastated families,” says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project.  

Those numbers are based on research by John James, Ph.D., a retired NASA scientist who became a patient-safety advocate after his son’s death 12 years ago. He and McGiffert recently testified before the Senate, asking Congress to create a National Patient Safety Board. It would be similar to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “We need one federal agency to focus on patient safety—where people can report medical errors—and that is dedicated to preventing patient harm,” McGiffert says.  

The creation of the board was front and center when dozens of advocates gathered recently for the Safe Patient Project’s annual summit at Consumer Reports' Yonkers, N.Y. headquarters. McGiffert wants your help, too. “If you, or someone you care for, has been harmed by medical care, ask your representatives to support this effort,” she said. Click here for a letter you can send. “Or write one in your own words,” McGiffert says, including these points:

  • Too many Americans are injured or die because of medical errors.
  • Efforts to reduce those errors are fragmented, making them difficult to track.
  • We need an agency where consumers and providers can report and search errors.  

Use our hospital Ratings to see how hospitals in your area compare in preventing infections, avoiding surgical complications, and other safey measures. And read our hospital survival guide for more tips on staying safe in the hospital.

What you can do

In the meantime, here is advice from McGiffert and other patient safety advocates on the steps you can take now to stay safe in the hospital. 

1. Ask for the informed consent form well in advance

That’s the form that explains the benefits—and risks—of your procedure. Having it handed to you as you are wheeled into the operating room, as it sometimes happens, is not OK. Get it from the person who will perform the surgery as far in advance as possible, so that you can ask him or her questions.

2. Find out about the visitors’ policy

Having a companion with you is key, especially overnight and on weekends, to act as your advocate and as an extra set of eyes and ears. Look for a hospital that encourages you to have someone with you. Research suggests that people who have a friend or family member with them in the hospital recover faster and leave the hopital sooner.

3. Broach the error issue

This is no time to be shy. Ask your surgeon about his or her infection and error rates, and those of the hospital. Ask what will be done to prevent those events. That might encourage the surgeon to make an extra effort to keep you safe. Also note how the surgeon responds. If he or she doesn’t spend the time needed to answer your questions, consider looking elsewhere.

4. Don’t rush

Surgery is sometimes urgent, but you often have time to check out several hospitals and learn about the risks and benefits of the procedure, as well as your nonsurgical options.

5. Find out who will do the operation

It’s possible that it might be a doctor in training. Some people are OK with that—but some are not. If you want only the surgeon you spoke with, make that clear.

6. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion … or a third

Even if you’re comfortable with the first surgeon you talk with, consider meeting with another one or two just to be sure. “A good surgeon should welcome that,” McGiffert said.

—Joel Keehn



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