June 18, 2008

Ask what happened
In an ideal world, you’d get a prompt explanation. The reality, though, is that open discussion of a medical mistake, along with an apology, remains uncommon. Still, some hospitals—like Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore—are working toward more openness.

Get a copy of your medical records
It’s your right to see your file—but you may not get your complete records, says Bruce G. Fagel, MD, an ER physician turned medical-malpractice lawyer in Beverly Hills, California. In a birth-injury case, for instance, one of the most crucial documents is the fetal-monitoring strip, but it won’t be in your file unless you ask for it.

Start keeping your own notes
Write down everything, including dates, procedures, medications, and the names of health-care staffers who cared for you. If you opt to sue, your own record may be an effective tool against the usually vague notations in most patients’ charts. “Doctors are constantly told what kinds of things not to put in medical records,” Fagel says.

Speak to a higher-up
If you don’t get a satisfactory answer from the physician, talk to someone at a higher level. Also, ask to speak with an ombudsman and a patient advocate.

File a complaint
If you’re still not satisfied, complain to your state or local health department, as well as to the Joint Commission ( Patients who’ve experienced an error usually want to make sure the same mistake never happens to anyone else; lodging a complaint is one of the best ways to do that.

Consult a lawyer
If you don’t get an acceptable answer from the hospital, you may want to consult a lawyer. If you decide to sue, a good medical-malpractice attorney can help you navigate the Byzantine world of state and local laws.

Back to "Your Guide to Preventing Medical Mistakes Intro"

By Lorie A. Parch
Additional reporting by Kimberly Holland and Brittani Tingle

Related Links:
How to Avoid Becoming a Medical Mistake
Skills to Use in the Hospital
Five Surgeries to Avoid

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