Nurse Mistakenly Throws Out Transplant Kidney—How To Protect Against Medical Mistakes

Medical mistakes can happen to anyone.

Mistakes can happen in any business or industry. Some are avoidable and others are not. But when medical mistakes happen it never fails to shock the public. That includes the story of 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.

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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!)

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Protecting Yourself From Medical Mistakes

No one chooses to go into the hospital or outpatient clinic for surgery, but most times, this decision is a necessity or beyond our control. There are some things you can do to protect yourself or your loved one when and if they require surgical care.

Make Notes

Take notes on the names of staff, medications, test results, and procedures, or have a family member or friend with you to jot down the notes. Usually, you will meet with your surgeon, an anesthesiologist, and at least one nurse during your surgery prep. Also, make sure the doctors and nurses coming into your hospital room sanitize their hands before touching you.

Bring a List

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

Ask questions if you don't understand something and be wary if a staffer rolls their eyes or dismisses your concerns. It might be good to have a list of questions ready for the surgeon or anesthesiologist about procedures or recovery. 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. Usually, your surgeon will initial the area that is to be worked on with a marker.

Identify Yourself

Identify yourself to all staff involved so they don't mistake you for someone else and give you the wrong medication or perform the wrong procedure. You'll probably be asked your name and date of birth 20 times before they move you into surgery.

Find a Doctor and Hospital You Like

Once you find a doctor you like, stick with them. Continuity of care can go a long way toward minimizing mistakes. Electronic health records aren't a must, but they help, too. 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. Don't count on urgent-care facilities for life-saving procedures. These are more useful for commonplace complaints such as the flu.

Follow Up on Results

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

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

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