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On guard in the hospital: the importance of patient advocates

A close friend or family member goes into the hospital, expecting to get better. Instead, he or she gets worse and maybe even dies.

How can you know whether what happened was no one's fault or the result of medical malpractice? And if a hospital visit is just beginning, how do you protect your friend or family member against the adverse events that happen so often there?

When someone begins medical treatment, it's important for that person to speak up for his or her interests or to have an advocate who will. Otherwise, potentially harmful treatment can easily result from miscommunication between doctors and other medical providers.

The harmful treatment could be a medication error caused by miscommunication between a doctor and a pharmacist or a doctor and a nurse. It could be a wrong-site surgery or some other terrible event that should never happen.

Beware of botched handoffs

The fact is that the more specialized the medical profession becomes, the more likely it is that botched handoffs and flawed follow-ups will occur. Far too often, in hospitals, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

To be sure, specialization has opened up many new treatment interventions that may be beneficial. But when medical providers become careless about coordinating the care, the lack of focus on the patient's specific needs can do much more harm than good.

The problem is widespread, both in Ohio and across the country. Indeed, it is so widespread that there is now a constant stream of research and publications warning about preventable medical errors.

Serious research on the subject dates back at least to the often-cited "To Err Is Human" report by the Institute of Medicine in 1999. In that report, a respected research group estimated that as many as 98,000 deaths occur every year in the U.S. due to medical errors.

That was 16 years ago. Ongoing research suggests that the problem may be even larger in scope than originally thought. That is why medical patients and their families need to learn to be assertive, not merely to accept that all care will be benign.

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