The good news: There’s been an unprecedented focus on patient safety in the past five years.
The bad news: Medical errors are the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S., responsible for as many as 98,000 deaths each year.
The better news: According to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), while many errors result from the complexity of health care systems, patients can protect themselves by taking control of their health care.
Medication, surgical and diagnostic errors are among the most prevalent and can largely be prevented through efforts from government agencies, purchasers of group health care, physicians and health care providers to make the system safer. While waiting for these large-scale, national changes, however, you can play an active role in protecting yourself against medical errors by taking control of your own health care and getting involved with every decision.
“Don’t assume everyone knows everything they need to about your health care,” says Dr. Boyd Lyles, director of HeartHealth and Wellness Center in Dallas. “Research and practical experience show that patients who become more involved in their care get better results overall.”
How to Keep Check on Your Health Care and Doctor?
Here are some recommendations for getting involved with your own care to prevent errors:
• Ask for information about your conditions and medicines in terms you can understand. Medical information is often difficult to decipher and interpret. Make sure your provider explains your treatment plan in detail and do not leave until you understand everything you need to know about your medicines-both when they are being prescribed and when you pick them up from the pharmacy.
Keep others updated
• Keep your health care team informed. Make sure your doctors know about everything you take, from prescription medicines to dietary supplements and over-the-counter medications. Additionally, be sure your doctor knows of any allergies to prevent getting a medicine that can harm you. Personalized medical ID bracelets and necklaces, available in a variety of fashionable styles, are essential to communicate this information. Rick Russell, founder of American Medical ID, says that in many emergencies, wearing a medical ID could make a world of difference in the quality of care you receive. “Having medical information front and center helps address many risks associated with treatment. Wearing a medical ID offers you and your loved ones peace of mind.”
Right to ask
• Finally, exercise your right to question anyone involved with your care-from physicians to pharmacists to insurance companies.
Christie Aschwanden has put together an excellent primer on how to find the information about doctors that’s available in public records.
Googling your doctor’s name and reading their reviews on Yelp can help with some details, but there’s concrete information available for patients that you might be missing.
Here are 5 steps to check up on your doctor, adapted from Aschwanden’s information.
Determine whether your doctor has ever been in hot water.
One note before diving in: state records can be incomplete, so pending lawsuits or complaints may not show up. Also, Aschwanden explains, because of technicalities and sometimes-lenient state boards, “what may appear like a minor infraction in the doctor’s record could represent something serious.” On the flip side, medical malpractice lawsuits are more common in certain high-risk specialties and don’t always represent wrongdoing.
As Daniel Spogen, a physician at the University of Nevada School of Medicine told Aschwanden, “the average physician is sued for malpractice once every seven or eight years, but not every lawsuit has just cause.”
To use most of the resources included here, you’ll need your doctor’s name and state.
1. State Medical Board
Your state medical board is a good place to start – look up your state’s site here. Different states make different kinds of information available, but you can often find out if your doctor has been disciplined by the board or successfully sued for medical malpractice.
In New York, for example, you can verify your doctor has a medical license and find information about medical malpractice claims, disciplinary actions alleging professional misconduct, criminal convictions, hospitals that have restricted your physician’s privileges, and much more.
Keep in mind that doctors who have problems in one state may also move to another, so that their new state’s database may not mention previous problems. That said, serious misconduct will often prevent a doctor who is disciplined in one state from practicing somewhere else.
2. Doc Info
If your state medical board’s site is difficult to navigate, or if you want to pay for the convenience of a more thorough report, you can look up one physician (in any state) for $9.95 on DocInfo.org, a service of the not-for-profit Federation of State Medical Boards. This will include actions from multiple states.
Here is a screenshot from a sample Doc Info report:
Healthgrades is an ad-supported, for-profit site, best known for its patient reviews. But the site also collects state and federal information on sanctions, malpractice, board actions, and more. Look under “More About Dr. [Name]’s Background” on any doctor’s profile.
Find out if your doctor has pharmaceutical industry ties or questionable prescription practices.
Many doctors take handouts from pharmaceutical companies, in the form of everything from free lunches to hefty speaking fees. Most who do so claim there’s nothing untoward going on, but studies have shown that cozy pharmaceutical company-doctor relationships are associated with a lower quality of care and higher costs for patients.
Thanks to two projects by the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica, patients can now find out if pharmaceutical companies are paying their doctors and if there are any red flags in a doctor’s prescription practices.
4. Dollars for Doctors
This database lets you type in the name of any doctor or institution and see the money that changed hands. You’re most likely to dig up small payments, but some doctors’ handouts amount to more than half a million dollars.
The data is incomplete but includes $2.1 billion in payments from 15 pharmaceutical companies representing about half of the industry. That means that while many companies reported payouts, many others did not.
Beginning this year, the Affordable Care Act requires public disclosure of this information from every pharmaceutical company and medical device manufacturer.
5. Prescriber Checkup
Type the name of your doctor, nurse practitioner, or other provider into Prescriber Checkup, and you’ll immediately get a wealth of information about their prescription practices and how they differ from others in their specialty. The database only includes 364,000 providers who wrote 50 or more prescriptions in 2011, so many doctors may not be listed.
You can see how likely a particular doctor is to prescribe risky drugs, narcotics, and brand-name drugs, and you can also find out whether the cost and number of the prescriptions they write is higher or lower than average. Drill down further, and you can browse a list of your doctor’s favorite prescriptions and compare them to how popular the same drugs were among other similar providers.
If any anomalies jump out at you – e.g., a drug is #1 for your doctor but #100 among others – it may be useful to cross-reference what you find with the Dollars for Doctors database. That said, certain doctors may be prescribing particular drugs more often than others for totally benign reasons, like sub-specializing in a rare disorder.
One important caveat: The information in this database comes from prescriptions obtained through Medicare’s drug benefit (Part D), so about 75% of patients receiving these prescriptions are seniors, and the rest are disabled.
Be alert. Inform your friends, well-wishers. Have background check of doctors and compare fees charged by the hospitals to control your health care.