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Mistakes can happen, sure. But medical mistakes never fail to shock, including the story this week that a nurse at the University of Toledo Medical Center threw away a donated kidney intended for a recipient who was, at that very moment, waiting in the operating room to undergo a transplant.

The nurse, who didn't realize she was carrying a life-saving organ, marched the kidney out of the operating room and down the hall, where she flushed it down a disposal hopper.

An investigation attributed the mistake largely to a communication error: The nurse hadn't been in the operating room when the surgeon announced that the kidney was being stored in a chilled solution. The nurse who had been in the operating room didn't pass on the all-important message.

While this serious of a gaffe is rare, mistakes do happen in hospitals and other healthcare settings. In fact, an estimated 100,000 people die each year in the U.S. due to preventable medical mistakes. Indeed, the federal government is asking more people to report medical mistakes, since they can often go unrecorded. (Can't fix what you don't know about!)

However, there are some things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Take notes on names of staff, medications, test results, and procedures, or have a family member or friend with you to jot down notes.
  • Make sure your healthcare providers know what medications you're taking (it's a good idea to keep a list in your wallet or, better yet, take the bottles with you to the doctor's office). When you leave the doctor's office or the hospital, make sure you know what your medications are and how to take them.
  • Ask questions if you don't understand something and be wary if a staffer rolls their eyes or dismisses your concerns.

  • Make sure the doctors and nurses coming into your hospital room sanitize their hands before touching you.

  • Clarify with your surgeon exactly what procedure will be performed and on what specific body part. You don't want an artificial knee in your left knee when it's your right that hurts.
  • Identify yourself to all staff so they don't mistake you for someone else and give you the wrong medication or perform the wrong procedure.

  • Choose a hospital that has plenty of experience in performing the same procedure or surgery you're planning to undergo. Check out surgeons or doctors with your state or local board of health before picking one.

  • Once you find a doctor you like, stick with them. Continuity of care can go a long way towards minimizing mistakes. Electronic health records aren't a must, but they help, too.

  • Make sure you're contacted about the results of every test, whether the results are positive or negative.

  • Don't count on urgent-care facilities for life-saving procedures. These are more useful for commonplace complaints such as the flu.

For more tips about preventing medical mistakes, check out the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.