Xingxun Yu was admitted to the hospital on a spring day in 2008 for what his family expected would be a fairly minor procedure to wean him off a breathing machine his doctor believed he no longer needed. At the time, Yu was 81; hospital notes described him as “alert,” “smiling,” and “chatting with family.”
During his stay, though, the doctor put him on a new drug. His daughter questioned the risks associated with it at the time, but said her concerns were dismissed.
It turned out the drug contained sulfa, to which Xingxun was allergic. Ten days after admission, Xingxun was close to death. His daughter Yanling Yu and her husband, Rex Johnson, took him home where he died three days later.
Months later Yanling and Johnson discovered the hospital pharmacist had warned this doctor about possible drug reactions with this patient.
“Losing a loved one is never easy,” Yanling says. “Losing them due to someone’s negligence makes the experience even more devastating.”
More than 250,000 people die each year due to medical errors in the United States, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, according to a 2016 study by Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Despite the high numbers, though, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves,” said Martin Makary, M.D., M.P.H, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.
Preventable, adverse effects of medical care
The National Institutes of Health defines medical error as “the preventable adverse effect of medical care.”
Medical errors range from opioid over-prescribing, breakdowns in care coordination, improper transfusions, misdiagnoses, surgical injuries, and even mistaken patient identities.
Most medical errors occur in hospitals, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Patient Safety.
Medication errors, such as the one that claimed Xingxun Yu, kill between 7,000 and 9,000 people each year in the United States, according to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Such errors include wrong dosages, incorrect choices of medication, the wrong drug, a known allergy and wrong frequency. The study also said thousands more don’t report adverse reactions.
Yanling and Johnson sued the doctor and the hospital, but lost. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) later cited the hospital for patient rights and medical record violations, Yanling says.
Despite the loss in court, the couple kept fighting and started a nonprofit – Washington Advocates for Patient
Safety. This organization advocates for patient-centered care and medication safety to prevent what happened to Yu. They promote transparency, accountability and responsibility in patient care.
Both Yanling and Johnson are retired from the University of Washington in Seattle. Yanling worked as a senior oceanographer and Johnson as a senior research engineer.
Still, since the death of Yanling’s father in 2008, many patient safety advocates and government agencies have recognized the number of medical errors as a crisis and taken action. In a call-to-action paper compiled by the National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) in 2017, the subtitle said, “Preventable healthcare harm is a public health crisis.” The report also says, “Efforts to improve patient safety have been ongoing for several decades, but the scale of improvement has been limited and inconsistent, with some organizations succeeding more than others.”
Numerous agencies, including the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are also working to decrease the number of medical errors.
Patient-safety advocates and government agencies have worked hard to increase “more awareness that patients are part of the medical team and aware of their preferences and rights,” Yu says. “Families of patients share in the decision making. The whole patient safety culture is changing.”
On a more personal level, every state has organizations like Washington Advocates for Patient Safety, the one co-founded by Yanling Yu and Johnson. Many of them were started because a loved one had a devastating experience with medical errors like Yu and Johnson did.
“Our mission is to raise awareness on the public and health side,” says Johnson. “We spend a lot of time educating the politicians who write the laws that affect us.”
Yu is advocating for a law now that would allow patients to record their conversations with medical professionals. Now you’re welcome to ask if you can record your interactions, but Yu says you may be met with a “no.”
How to advocate for yourself and your loved ones
Until medical errors have been reduced to zero, you’ll need to protect yourself as best you can.
Yu and Johnson have developed some steps to take to help avoid medical errors:
- Be proactive – Ask questions until you understand what’s happening.
- Be informed – Search for information on your condition, ask the doctor about risks and if you really need the procedure or medication suggested.
- Have an advocate – Try to have a friend or relative with you when talking to a doctor, so they can take notes and go over what was said with you later. Your brain may not be at full capacity because you don’t feel well, so you need someone who has a fully functioning brain with you.
- Make sure anyone who touches you has washed their hands to lower the chances of getting a hospital-acquired infection.
- Always keep a printed list of your medications and dosage with you.
- If you can choose the hospital you’re going to, find out their ratings on Hospital Compare or LeapFrog
Safer health care, Yu says, depends on us making ourselves part of the solution.