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An MSN article today describes the excessive number of egregious errors made in hospitals resulting in death to the patient and the numbers are staggering. Approximately 1.5 million patients experience some type of avoidable error or condition each year while in the hospital, and 40,000 to 100,000 of them die – every year.

Did you know that there is a 20% chance that you will be given the wrong medication while you are in the hospital? What about the fact that doctors wash their hands only 61% of the time (it drops to 44% if they don’t think anyone is watching)?

The underlying condition that contributes to these avoidable errors appears to be overcrowding in our hospitals. There aren’t enough doctors and nurses on staff to handle the number of patients; patients are placed in beds on floors where the staff does’t have sufficient training to treat them; and the systems to schedule surgeries are inadequate. According to Eugene Litvak, a researcher at Boston University,

The challenge is similar to preventing traffic jams. It’s not so much that there aren’t enough doctors and nurses, but that patients tend to show up all at once or not at all. And traffic spikes don’t occur because of kids falling out of trees or sudden epidemics; it’s that surgeons are allowed to schedule operations without regard for how many operating rooms will work at the same time. Badly scheduled admissions, says Litvak, “will screw up everything else that you build.”

Apparently the best way to avoid some of these errors is to take charge of your own medical care. When hospital staff enters your room, make sure you see them wash their hands before they come to your bedside. Don’t be afraid to ask the doctor what medications have been prescribed and confirm them with your nurse before you take them. If you’re having surgery, such as a knee replacement or kidney removal, have a family member mark the your body with the words “Right”and “Wrong” where appropriate. If you don’t, the result could be life threatening.

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